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?

ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism