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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Irish preparations for border checks bring home the reality of Brexit

The news that the Irish government has begun preparing for customs checks has caused alarm.

With the United Kingdom set to leave the European Union, the re-introduction of some form of border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic is, perhaps, inevitable.

In particular, after Prime Minister Theresa May confirmed that the UK will be leaving the single market, few can be surprised to hear that the Irish Revenue Commissioners have begun identifying possible locations for customs checkpoints.

Internal government documents, whose contents were reported in yesterday's Irish Examiner, are said to examine possible sites in Louth, Monoghan, Cavan, Leitrim, and Donegal.

Yet if the news is not surprising, the prospect of a reinstated border still has the potential to alarm – another reminder of the unavoidable impact of Brexit on these isles.

According to the Donegal Daily, Sinn Féin TD Pearse Doherty has called the proposals “deeply worrying”.

“This is a major cause for concern for the island of Ireland as a whole, but particularly for counties along the border where communities there have such close social and economic links.

“The re-introduction of full customs checkpoints would cause considerable economic upheaval, and poses a very real threat to our economy and to employment on this island – both north and south.

Concerns have already been raised about services which may be threatened by Brexit. Cross-border health schemes that currently give Irish patients NHS access, for instance, may be at risk, according to UK government documents leaked to the Times.

For those in the border counties, however, the concerns are not only practical.

Although systematic customs checks were abolished in 1993, with the creation of the single market, it was not until the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement were implemented that British military checkpoints were removed from the Irish border. The last major structures were removed in 2007.

Nowadays, road travellers from the North may not even notice they have crossed into the Republic until the first bilingual road signs appear.

Yet the border still looms large in the local imagination. Darran Anderson, the author of Imaginary Cities, is from Derry-Londonderry, and grew up with a military checkpoint at the end of his street.

“The psychological dimension, and the political reverberations from that, shouldn't be overlooked," he tells me.

“The free movement of people across the border has encouraged plural senses of identity and belonging. It was never quite the European cosmopolitanism that some claimed but it was much looser than the traditional 'us and them'. With a reinstated border, we face a situation where the young in particular are expected to return to old identities and allegiances to which they've never really subscribed. Other borders, beyond the physical, risk being reinstated.

Although politicians would no doubt point out that there is a big difference between watchtowers and a routine customs stop, for some, even these proposals represent a worrying step backwards.

“Even if it does occur with minimal disruption, how long will it stay that way?” Anderson asks. “The head of the Police Federation for Northern Ireland has expressed concerns that border posts would be 'propaganda gifts' and 'sitting ducks' for rogue Republican groups, adding that attacks are ‘highly likely.’

"Should those occur, and security be stepped up as a result, it is very easy to see the border becoming re-militarised and the reassurances going the way of the Leave campaign's NHS funding pledge.”

Brexit secretary David Davis has promised that there will be no return to a “hard” border.

Last week, the House of Commons voted down a proposed amendment by the Social Democratic and Labour Party which would have guaranteed that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement be considered during negotiations to leave the European Union.

Speaking after the vote, Ulster Unionist Party MP Tom Elliot re-iterated comments made by the Irish ambassador, Daniel Mulhall, stating that the Irish government has “absolute determination” that the 1998 agreement will not be impacted by Brexit.

But the work on the Irish border suggests the practical side of Brexit may overrule the political principle. 

The Irish Revenue Commission have been approached for comment.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland