In Aswan, death sentences loom as families try to put tribal violence behind them

Twenty-five people in Aswan accused of committing acts of murder and violence in a brutal tribal battle two years ago have been referred to the grand mufti, a step that usually precedes the issuing of a death sentence.

The Assiut Criminal Court sent the case to the grand mufti on Wednesday. Nine of the 25 defendants are being tried in absentia, while another 163 people will also face trial on June 7 for their alleged role in the incident. The defendants face charges of murder, inciting violence, theft, abduction, attacking police personnel, illegal arms possession and the destruction of public and private property.

The fierce violence that erupted in early 2014 between the Dabodeya and Hilail tribes left at least 28 people dead, hundreds injured and several buildings destroyed. Eyewitnesses who testified in court over the last two years have claimed that the clashes were ignited by a scuffle between schoolchildren who had insulted women belonging to both tribes, according to the privately owned newspaper Al-Shorouk. The initial clashes quickly escalated, and police forces completely withdrew from the Seil al-Rify area where the fighting began.

Tribal leaders from both sides ultimately conducted a traditional reconciliation session under the supervision of police and representatives from Al-Azhar in order to restore peace. But signs that the death penalty could be meted out have sparked fears that the violence could be renewed.  

Ahmed al-Sayed, a representative from the Hilail tribe and a member of the committee that engineered the reconciliation process, dismisses such fears. In a phone interview with Mada Masr, he claimed that both tribes are committed to the reconciliation process, and that a committee meeting will be held soon to discuss possible ways to handle the situation.

Sayed’s larger concern is the difficulties the families of those convicted have endured for the past two years of the judicial process.

“The families of most of those convicted are really poor people, and are financially exhausted as they have travelled every week for two years from Aswan to Assiut to visit their loved ones in prison. We are urging the president to intervene,” he said.

Abdel Dayem Ezz Eddin, a member of the Nubian Dabodeya tribe, also believes there is little chance of renewed violence. But he told Mada Masr that anger and frustration are mounting on both sides due to the harsh sentences handed down against their people.

“If the families of those killed from both sides have accepted reconciliation, the state has to show some mercy for those families, and President [Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi should issue a presidential pardon,” he asserted.

“One of those convicted is Sheikh Aref Seyam, who was a member of the reconciliation committee and has no relation to the violence. We all know that the charges were fabricated against him” by security forces, Ezz Eddin claimed.

Seyam is a leading figure from the Dabodeya tribe, the former head of the Teachers Syndicate in Aswan and a former parliamentarian. His son Taha, an ex-football player, was one of the 25 people referred to the grand mufti, while his other son Ahmed is among the defendants awaiting a verdict in June, according to the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper. Sayed said that both tribes were shocked by the sentence against Seyam.

Nubian lawyer Mohamed Azmy, who has been following the case, claimed that “Seyam, his two sons and a number of other family members are among the defendants simply because he turned down continued requests from the police to hand in those who were involved in the violence from both sides. One of Seyam’s sons [who is facing charges] actually died six years ago.”

Azmy argued that the case is full of legal loopholes, and directly accused top Aswan police officials of not conducting proper investigations.

Other members of the reconciliation committee who are defendants in the case include Yousry Hassan Bahr, Hamdy Haggag, Nuby Balmoun, Amr Mahfouz and Saad Hassan. Several Nubian activists who gave TV interviews about the violence at the time, like Hany Youssef and Adel Abu Bakr, are also among the 163 defendants waiting for the June ruling, according to Azmy.

“Other tribal leaders involved in altercations with police at the time were included as defendants just because they disagreed with police. The police were settling the score with everyone,” he claimed.

Interior Ministry representatives were not available for comment.

Tribal violence is common in Upper Egypt, and the government is often blamed for failing to implement the rule of law, leaving residents to resort to traditional reconciliation sessions led by tribal leaders in order to restore peace.  

Sherif Azer, a human rights activist and PhD candidate at York University who hails from Upper Egypt, explained to Mada Masr that traditional solutions have always been the answer to the state’s inability to control violence in tribal communities.

“We also see this in cases of sectarian violence between Muslims and Copts in Upper Egypt. The state has been the premier facilitator of such customary reconciliation sessions between tribes by voluntarily giving up on its role to implement the course of justice,” Azer explained.

However, the Hilail-Dabodeya case set a new precedent, in that the state has insisted on pursuing a harsh legal path pursuant to the violence. Azer believes that this time, public opinion may have pressured the authorities into acting.  

“This was not like other cases of tribal violence. The case got strong media attention nationally and internationally, so the state was in a position where it had to pursue a legal process,” Azer said.

But Azer believes that the huge number of defendants would suggest that at least some are innocent.

“Such cases usually include major legal loopholes, and sometimes defendants are forced into certain confessions under torture,” he claimed. “Traditional solutions alone don’t serve justice, but neither does a random legal process.” 

Mai Shams El-Din 

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