Egypt's Atticus Finch: He defended the unpopular. Now he's in prison


Egyptian women faint as they react outside the courtroom in Minya after the sentences were announced.


Khaled Desouki

CAIRO, Egypt — Egypt's mass death sentences — 529 condemned to die on March 24, and 683 on Monday — have sparked outrage worldwide. But if it wasn't for one of the defendants, now languishing in prison, dozens more would now be facing either the noose or a life behind bars.

That man is lawyer Ahmed Eid, and it is precisely because he managed to save 60 others that, according to an account his family gave GlobalPost, he ended up on the prosecution list himself.

His story, of one man's struggle for fairness and the rule of law, is a window into the cruelty and absurdity of Egypt's security state and its judiciary.

Like the rest of those convicted in the two cases, Eid, 36, is accused of participating in violence that took place in the province of Minya in southern Egypt on Aug. 14 last year. Early that morning, police stormed two sit-ins in Cairo held by supporters of the recently-ousted president Mohamed Morsi, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing hundreds. As the news reached Minya, a three-hour drive south of the capital, mobs attacked and burned police stations and churches, accusing Christians as well as police of having backed the deadly crackdown. They killed policemen.

But that night, according to his family, Eid was at home with his parents, his wife Maha and their two young children, Adam (5) and Bassant (7), watching the violence in Cairo on the television news. They sat in their comfortable living room, which has pictures of the children's favorite cartoon characters pasted on the wall.

In the months that followed Aug. 14, police investigated and arrested hundreds of people for involvement in the attacks — although they would not draw up a formal charge list until January.

Eid took on the cases of 60 of those who had been arrested, and argued successfully in court that their detention was unlawful. They were freed. His wife, who has reviewed the case file, said she believes 20 or 30 of them were members of the Brotherhood — as of December labeled a terrorist organization by the military-led Egyptian authorities. No evidence of the Muslim Brotherhood’s terrorist activities has yet been presented by the government.

Eid's decision to take the case was not politically motivated, his father said. "As a lawyer, he'd work with anyone, defend anyone; the good and the bad, that is their right," he said. "Besides, he used to say 'all politicians are prostitutes.'"

On Jan. 22, police came to Eid's home, but he was working at one of his firm's offices out of town. The officers took a computer belonging to the children, their mother said, and left a message for their father to call when he returned.

Eid was used to discussing cases with investigators, so didn't think anything of the invitation to the police station for a meeting. But once inside he was arrested. While he'd been out of town, prosecutors had issued the charge list — and although he had never been asked about his involvement in the case before, his name was on it. His family believe the authorities were taking revenge for the blow his recent victory in court had dealt them. A police spokesman declined to be interviewed for this story.

Three other families interviewed by GlobalPost also said their relatives had been accused after a personal dispute with a policeman or supporter of the authorities.

Others were lucky: news of the names on the list filtered out before the arrests, and hundreds went into hiding.

On March 24, along with 528 others, Eid was sentenced to death by Judge Saeed Youssef, who set a record for the largest mass death sentence ever handed down in memory anywhere in the world, according to Amnesty International. On the court day in March, Youssef spent just a few hours hearing evidence. At one point defense lawyers were booted from the courtroom.

Egyptian law requires that death sentences be reviewed by the judge after the Grand Mufti, the country's leading religious authority, is given the opportunity to comment. The Mufti's comment is confidential, but this past Monday, a little over a month after the original sentencing, Youssef commuted all but 37 of those death sentences to life sentences — 25 years in the dank and abusive prisons of Egypt. 

But in the same eight-minute session on Monday, he sentenced a further 683 people to death, breaking his own record from March. A block away from the courtroom, in front of a cordon of soldiers and police officers, families of those accused in both cases broke down crying.

Egyptian women faint as they react outside the courtroom in Minya after the sentences were announced. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

Under Egyptian law, all people tried in absentia — as more than 1,000 of the 1,200 defendants here were — are automatically entitled to a retrial. Lawyers hope that the remainder, who were either in custody or present for their trials, will receive justice in the Court of Appeal.

For now, hundreds of families live in the shadow of the noose, and hundreds more in that of life sentences.

Nathan Brown, a scholar of Egypt's judiciary at George Washington University, has previously told GlobalPost that in the current political climate, the evidentiary standards required by courts are lowered.

In a statement issued Monday, Amnesty International called the cases a "mockery of justice."

Eid's father shares that view. He combed the 6,000-page prosecution file searching for his son's name. It appears, he says, only in Eid's capacity as a lawyer for other defendants. His name does not appear in any of the 22 witness statements, nor in the transcript of an alleged video — not publicly available or viewed in court — in which informants put names to the faces they allegedly identified. Defense lawyers have said they believe that the judge has not even read the full file.

It was not possible to reach the judge for comment.

A press release from the Ministry of Justice on Monday said that, because “the case is still in a legal proceeding ... it is not categorically allowed to comment on judicial rulings.” The statement, however, emphasized the defendants' right to appeal. “If they would show up in court they would have the right to defend themselves.”

When Eid's wife and father went to see him in prison — a seven-hour trip for a two-minute visit, with an officer looking over his shoulder — he seemed, they said, "broken down."

Under Egyptian law, a “life sentence” is 25 years. If he serves out his full sentence, Eid's children will be 30 and 32 years old by the time he is released. On Monday they were playing on his living room floor, while the television set showed montages of other recent court cases decried by observers and opposition activists: the trial of three Al Jazeera journalists on terrorism charges and the banning of the April 6 youth movement which, just over three years ago, led calls for a revolution.