x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Death penalty debate rages as hundreds await gallows

A sharp increase in the number of Egyptians condemned to hang has prompted calls for a re-examination of capital punishment.

CAIRO // June has been dubbed "the month of executions" and 2009 "the year of mass executions" by Egyptian newspapers and analysts amid debate about abolishing capital punishment. More than 200 death sentences have been handed down since the beginning of the year, including 68 in June alone, according to official sources at the justice ministry. There are usually about 80 people executed each year. A headline in the state-owned Al-Akhbar el-Youm weekly on Saturday read: the executioner is very busy these days: is execution a necessity to combat the proliferation of crimes? "32 death sentences in 72 hours ... What is going on in Egypt?" asked a recent headline in the opposition daily Al Destour. On Thursday, the latest death sentences came during one of the highest-profile criminal cases in recent history. Hisham Talaat Moustafa, an Egyptian tycoon and senior member of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party, and Mohsen el Sokari, a former state security officer, were sentenced to death by Judge Al Muhammadi Qonsowa. Moustafa, 49, was charged with inciting, assisting and paying el Sokari, 40, US$2 million (Dh7.3m) to kill the Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim in Dubai last year, after she left Moustafa for another man. The two men have exchanged their white prison uniforms for the red ones that all those sentenced to death must wear until their execution day, which is only announced the day before they are to be hanged. The Egyptian criminal code allows I'dam, or the death penalty, in cases of premeditated murder, stealing if associated with murder, rape and spying for an enemy state. Twenty-four men were sentenced to hang this month after 11 men were killed over a land dispute in Wadi el Natroun. Ten men were sentenced to death earlier this year in Kafr el Sheikh province for raping a married woman in her home. A man was sentenced to death for killing his ex-fiance, her sister and mother at their home in Giza. The unusually high number of death sentences so far this year has unleashed a debate about the ineffectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to violent crime, which has been on the increase. While some, mainly Muslim clerics, say that the death sentence is prescribed for certain crimes in the Quran, others are calling for its abolition. "I demand the abolition of the death sentence," was the title of the first of five columns written by Cherif el Choubachy in the state-owned Al Ahram. He called the series an "ongoing campaign against death sentences as unsuitable for the 21st century", in an interview with The National. "I used to believe in the death sentence, but I developed and matured, and I believe that the laws have also developed to become more merciful, and to assure justice not revenge," he added. Religious authorities are vocally opposing such sentiments. "Any Muslim who denies qasas [capital punishment], which is mentioned in the Quran, is an infidel [non-believer]," said cleric Abdel Fattah el Sheikh, former director of Al Azhar University and director of the jurisprudence committee which is affiliated with Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's most prominent institution. "Muslims shouldn't question or think of abolishing the death sentence or anything stated clearly in the Quran," continued Mr el Sheikh. "And those who condemn capital punishment against murderers as being too tough and cruel, what about what happened to the victims? Why did they forget their horror and pain while being killed and the irreversible loss of their families," he added. Judge Mohammed Hamed el Gamal, former head of the Supreme Administrative Court, said: "Actually, this punishment which is described as savage by its contenders are conducted in a human way and by the law, which allows the convicted to see his family and meet his last wishes, as long as they are legal, and under religious, legal, medical and prison supervision, which definitely is not how those criminals killed their victims.". Several human rights organisations here have joined the campaign for abolishing, or at least suspending, the capital punishment, to the dismay of many clerics and judges. "We are no longer calling for the abolition of this punishment or the law allowing it now, but we're calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty," said Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. "No doubt that the death penalty plays a big role in deterring some individuals from committing different crimes," said Samiha Nasr, head of the Crime and Criminal Policies Department at the National Crime and Sociological Research Centre. "However, this depends on the personality, as those who have no religious, moral deterrence, are not necessarily deterred by this punishment as they tend to think that they won't be caught," she added. Mrs Nasr said there was an alarming rise in violent crimes in Egypt, but she said nobody could say for sure that the increase in death sentences would lead to a decrease in crime, but she still supports the death penalty "regardless of its deterring effect". Mohammed Othman, 54, a taxi driver also favours capital punishment. "I'm pro the death penalty, and I think it should be conducted in public squares, then it will become more deterrent." Iriny Thabet, a professor of languages at Ain Shams University, disagreed. "How can one justify killing? We convict and punish the criminal because he committed a mistake, why should we do wrong like him and kill like he did? "We should give criminals a chance to repent, and leave ending one's life to God, who gave us life." nmagd@thenational.ae