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In the courtroom: Plenty of drama and little else

 

A long day in court begins…

Case 1

As the defendants are led into the cage in the newly constructed makeshift courtroom at the police academy in Tora, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohamed Badie, second-in-command Khairat al-Shater, former Speaker of Parliament Saad al-Katatny and other leading members of the Brotherhood raise their hands to salute their lawyers.

They are in court on charges of murder and inciting the murder of protesters outside the headquarters of the Supreme Bureau of the Muslim Brotherhood during protests on June 30, 2012, right before former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster.

But everything in the courtroom on this busy day, in which numerous cases are being presented, screams of futility.

There is no tension, no solemnity or dread. Supposedly sacred legal procedures seem to have lost their intimidating effect.

Some of the lawyers line up in front of Shater, listening carefully as he talks to them from behind bars. I can’t discern most of the conversation, but I can see the synchronized laughing of the lawyers as Shater cracks jokes. One would assume that he is discussing the case, but his last words before being taken away indicate that it is nothing more than casual chitchat. “Tell her I said hello, and thank her for the things she sends me,” he tells one of his lawyers.

As for Badie, he makes use of every recess to gather lawyers in front of him to deliver a sermon. He narrates stories from Islamic history, all revolving around the idea that power is in the hands of God and that victory comes to those who stay true to his path. In the midst of the sermon, he frequently raises his hand and shouts “for Allah!” with a great deal of enthusiasm.

The defendants seem to have sidelined the case itself and made use of their rare moments of relative freedom in court. Although behind bars, they all have a wide smile and the demeanor of a child on a trip, which is what access to other people and exposure to the media must feel like after months in detention.

It is interesting to see how the lawyers in this case change their garb, although not physically. Sometimes they assume the role of devotee when listening to Badie’s sermon, only to switch back to their legal roles when the court is back in session.

When it is time for the lawyers to address the court, they do not discuss the case, but rather delve into logistical concerns. The testimony of the eye-witnesses has to be postponed, due to the absence of several defendants who are in other court rooms simultaneously. 

The judge promises to solve this problem, telling the lawyers that he will create “harmony” between all cases. A far too lyrical way to describe the coordination required to solve the scheduling problems of the cases.

In a long amicable back and forth with the judge, while exchanging traditional courtesies, the lawyers request to be allowed into the court’s vicinity with their cars to avoid long walks.

As the lawyers and the judge discuss logistics, the defendants pay little attention, convening in small groups and having their own chats inside the cage.

The judge retreats and the session is adjourned. Blowing smoke from a cigarette, which he lit mid session, into their cage, a police officer leads the defendants out of the courtroom.

In between cases, lawyers chat. One, who is defending a group of protesters, says: “I wish they would issue a verdict in my case already, it would definitely be acquittal.” He assumes the judges are waiting for the right time to issue their verdicts, when an acquittal of protesters is of political use to the regime.

Another says, “it’s getting cold,” and puts on his legal robe for warmth, adding, “they [in reference to the authorities] don’t want to finalize any cases.”

Case 2

In the second case heard by the court on Sunday, Badie, and 50 other Muslim Brotherhood leaders, are accused of plotting to destabilize the country from an operations room set up in the midst of the Rabea sit-in. The defendants excitedly greet each other through the steel wall that separates them into smaller groups inside the cage.

When the court calls the name of Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Gehad al-Haddad during roll call, he answers, “no,” with both pain and playfulness resonating equally in his voice. The other defendants giggle at his act of defiance, or boredom.

The judge isn’t amused. He looks at the cage from behind the sunglasses that he keeps putting on and then removing for no obvious reason, and asks, “Who said no? What do you mean, no? Are you here or not?” Haddad answers with a pinch of satisfaction in his voice for having irritated the judge, “yeah.”

The case is adjourned after one of the defendants challenges the court on grounds that the judge has verbally insulted him in the previous session. The defendants march away while singing a merry, highly melodic song, the kind that you hear at popular moulid celebrations.

Case 3

The defendants in the next case are not as well accustomed to the cage, or so it seems. The case involves 21 Al-Azhar University students, who were arrested on charges of road blocking and raiding Al-Azhar during a protest last November. They sit in parallel rows inside the cage, completely silent throughout the session, which lasts over two hours.

The prosecutor gives his opening statement, demanding a maximum sentence against the defendants, and asking the judges “not to take any mercy or pity upon them.” He probably does not realize the severity of his request to withhold mercy, as he robotically repeates the popular phrase often used in courtrooms.

Several lawyers speak on behalf of the defendants, each representing one, two or three of them. All the lawyers repeat the same lines of defense, revolving around illegitimacy. They address the illegitimacy of the arrests, which were made by civilians, the illegitimacy of the interrogation, which was conducted in police stations under duress and the illegitimacy of the supposed confessions of the 21 defendants, which are all identical word for word.

As they make their arguments, basically stating that every aspect of the case has been fabricated, they repeat textbook lines that express their respect for the sacredness of the court.

The judge adjourns the session, scheduling the next one to hear the defense of the remaining attorneys, to take place on April 8.

Case 4

“Don’t worry, it won’t take long, Alaa will challenge the court and then the session will be adjourned,” a low-ranking police officer guarding the court tells me right before the fourth case finally starts at 5 pm. He is referring to activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who is one of the defendants in the Shura Council protest case, in which 25 face charges of protesting without a permit. Abd El Fattah was recently released on bail, along with one other defendant. The rest of the defendants in the case were released earlier.

When I ask him how he knows, he replies with a smug smile, “It’s my job.” When I insinuate that it actually isn’t, his smile grows wider.

The defendants spend the morning at a cafe just outside the court waiting for their turn. The families distribute sunflower seeds, well known in Egypt for passing time and engage in friendly conversation.

They stand in line in front of a steel detector at the entrance joking around. “After you, defendant,” one says. “Thank you, defendant,” another replies.

As the guards separate the lawyers from the defendants at the gate, some look at one lawyer and laugh. While he is an attorney in this case, he is also accused of similar crimes to the defendants he is representing, but in another case.

The defendants enter the cage and stay there long enough for Abd El Fattah’s lawyers to challenge the court on grounds it won’t be able to hear the case objectively, which only takes a couple of minutes.

The presiding judge is on a list created by Abd El Fattah and his lawyer, among others, which was presented in court during a campaign that aimed to expose judges who participated in the rigging of elections in 2005. Despite the eloquence of the legal framing of the request, the awkwardness of the situation is undeniable.

Ten minutes later, Abd El Fattah and the other defendants are free again, for now. The day ends.

In the same courtroom the following day, a judge rejects the appeal of April 6 Youth Movement co-founders Mohamed Adel, Ahmed Maher and activist Ahmed Douma. This rejection upholds the three-year sentences given to the activists for defying the contentious Protest Law and assaulting police officers.

Watching the court proceedings unfold is quite amusing. Yet, the harsh sentences recently given to Muslim Brotherhood members, liberal activists and non-politicized citizens alike have made it clear that these court cases are no joke.

Defendants are acutely aware that they will very likely end up convicted. The absolute disregard for the details of the cases, the often deeply flawed legal proceedings, and the lack of evidence against those convicted in recent cases, seems to have led to a collective realization that whatever happens in the courtroom has little bearing on the verdicts.

 

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