Relatives of supporters of Mohamed Morsi cry outside the court in Minya, after it ordered the execution of 529 Morsi supporters. Photo: Getty
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Saeed Youssef, the Butcher of Minya

In just four weeks the Egyptian judge has sentenced to death 720 alleged supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in two mass verdicts.

Saeed Youssef, nicknamed “the Butcher”, has broken world records: in just four weeks this judge has sent 720 people to their deaths in two separate mass verdicts passed in his courtroom in Minya, Upper Egypt. Most recently, on 28 April, he sentenced 683 to death for allegedly killing a policeman in rioting after the July 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi.

During the eight-minute court sessions he refused to view evidence or listen to witnesses. Instead, bewildered defence lawyers told me, he ordered the security forces to point their guns at the legal team. Some were even forbidden entry to the hearings. “I have yet to make it into the courtroom,” one of the defendants’ lawyers, Ali Mabrouk told me.

More than 16,000 people have been arrested since the  July coup and many of those have been put to trial. Every week hundreds are sentenced, but Youssef is by far the harshest judge.

“The Butcher” gained notoriety when he led Beni Suef Criminal Court, a hundred kilometres south of Cairo, flanked by two assistant judges dubbed “Cut Throat” and “Mr X”. From there in 2013, he acquitted the Beni Suef police chief and ten of his officers of killing protesters during the 2011 uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. There was only one hearing, and neither the prosecution nor the defence team was allowed to present its case, as Mohamed El-Zanaty, a lawyer who has worked in Youssef’s courtrooms, told me. The judge simply wanted the policemen freed.

“For two years, he has been giving the most extreme verdicts we have ever heard of,” El-Zanaty said. He described how Youssef once sentenced a man to 40 years in jail for possessing a gun.

Thanks to this reputation for harsh sentencing, Youssef was promoted to become one of the nine regional “judicial terrorist district” courts, responsible for dealing with attacks on the state.

No one knows if Egypt’s military-installed authorities will carry out the death sentences: in the past three years only one person has been executed in the country. Nevertheless, the latest signs are not promising. In response to international outcry at the death verdicts, Justice Minister Neir Osman stood by the judge and claimed the Egyptian state was being “attacked by people from inside and outside”.

Meanwhile, the cabinet is drafting counterterrorism legislation that may soon help the Butcher in his quest to hang hundreds.

The package of laws will lead to many more death penalty verdicts because its definition of terrorism is so broad that it includes actions which obstruct the work of public officials or institutions, that harm national unity, or that are perceived as “intimidation”, says Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa office. Both Islamist and secular protest groups are fearful.

The politicisation of Egypt’s judiciary is alarming. No one knows if such judges are receiving orders directly from the state or acting on their own. They have clearly positioned themselves on the front line of the government’s mission to stamp out dissent. Yet judges are the guardians of democracy: on 26-27 May they will man polling stations and guard the ballot boxes for the presidential election, a vote that the ex-army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led last year’s coup, is expected to win. 

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war