Wednesday, April 2, 2014
In Mass Death Sentences in Egypt Highlight Need for Judicial Reform, Professor Sahar Aziz contends that the decision of the Egyptian judge to impose the death sentence on 529 defendants without a proper trial shows the need for judicial reform. She argues that defendants deserve due process rights at every stage in the judicial process. Judges must be neutral arbiters. If they act as agents of the executive branch—if courts become a forum for politics rather than law—then they lose all credibility.
At a time when most Egyptians are more interested in strengthening their economy than political gamesmanship, such troubling legal developments also contribute towards the deteriorating economic situation. For if businesses believe their disputes will be tried in kangaroo courts where politics trumps legal rights, then they will take their money elsewhere. Thus, current calls for increased foreign investment in Egypt are likely to fall on deaf ears.
When courts lose their independence, the Egyptian people are the biggest losers. Stripping defendants of due process rights based on their pro-Morsi stance is a slippery slope. Anyone who protests against government policies is at risk, Secular youth activists, including Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Alaa Abdel Fattah, have been charged and arrested for participating demonstrations. Surely those who fought to remove the Morsi administration were not envisioning that Egypt would come to this.
If Egyptians are serious about establishing a functional democracy, judicial reform is long overdue. Such efforts should ensure that the executive branch does not interfere in judicial appointments, promotions, and internal investigations. The 2014 constitution offers promising provisions, but more is needed. For instance, mechanisms should be put into place to guarantee that law graduates entering the judiciary are selected based on merit as opposed to family connections or political loyalties. Likewise, judges’ salaries should be sufficient to shield them from other enticements. More resources must be invested into judicial infrastructure, while publicly disclosing such information to allow for citizen oversight. Above all, fair and transparent processes must be established and equally enforced to hold the judiciary accountable. This might include penalizing, or expelling if necessary, judges who fail to hold up their obligations to remain neutral and objective.
To be sure, the judiciary must lead judicial reforms. But for this to happen, Egyptians should demand their government make judicial reform a priority. Everybody loses when judges fail to serve as a check on the executive branch. The largest mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history is a case in point.