The judge glowers at the weeping young defendant in the Tora Police Academy in Cairo. Naemah Sayed’s lawyer tells the judge that his client is less than 15 years old and that not a single witness has identified her as taking part in the 2011 clashes between security forces and demonstrators, for which she is facing up to 10 years in prison.
“Sentence me to death rather than a day in prison,” Ms Sayed pleads. The judge, Mohamed Nagi Shehata, is unmoved. “Stop your histrionics,” he orders, in an encounter caught on video and posted online.
In video footage of another case, defendant Salah Soltan complains from the defendants’ cage that he cannot hear Judge Shehata speak. “Shut up,” the judge tells Mr Soltan, who protests that he has the right to hear the case against him. “Do not speak,” Judge Shehata commands, adding: “I’m warning you.” He went on to sentence Mr Soltan to death.
Judge Shehata is Egypt’s “hanging judge”. Usually sporting dark sunglasses in court, he oversees trials for political crimes, including those charged with demonstrating illegally, and hands out harsh sentences. He became famous around the world when he sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to prison terms of up to 10 years in a case that was mocked by international jurists and quickly overturned on appeal.
Number of people Judge Shehata sentenced to death in five trials
He has also become the face of an Egyptian judiciary that many say has become highly politicised. In court sessions, he has repeatedly disparaged the 2011 uprising against former ruler Hosni Mubarak and defended the police who violently cracked down on the protesters. One western diplomat described him as a “completely out of control”. Few, if any, of the major cases before him have held up on appeal; most are quietly dismissed or ordered for retrial, say lawyers who have faced him in court.
“From a professional point of view, he knows the law,” says Mahmoud Bilal, an attorney who has represented defendants before Judge Shehata. “He just isn’t fair, and he’s very loyal to the regime.”
Earlier this month, Judge Shehata sentenced Mohamed Soltan, the Egyptian American son of Salah Soltan, to life in prison on charges of “spreading false news” and supporting the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood organisation in a case that drew the attention of Washington. Soltan and his 35 fellow defendants, who were also given lengthy sentences, were not present during the sentencing.
“We call for Mr Soltan’s immediate release from prison,” said a White House statement. “We remain deeply concerned about Mr Soltan’s health, which has suffered during his 20 month-long incarceration.”
Through an aide, Judge Shehata declined a request for an interview and refused to comment on the allegations against him. In an interview with a local newspaper he denied he was biased, but admitted supporting Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. His role as a jurist, he said, was circumscribed by God. “Judges are the shadow of God on earth, and we are designated by Him to maintain justice,” he told el-Watan, a pro-regime newspaper, in February. “A judge has no fear but from God.”
The judge’s rulings have become legendary. He has repeatedly barred family members of the accused, the defendants themselves and even their lawyers from attending court sessions, say defence lawyers, before sentencing them to death en masse. He continuously and angrily interrupts or halts lawyers attempting to mount a defence for their clients.
“It’s as if he’s convinced already that the defendants in the cage are already criminals, and that we’re supporting them by defending them,” said Ismail Abu Baraka, a lawyer defending his father and other defendants in a case relating to riots in the aftermath of the 2013 coup.
Analysts are baffled by the regime’s tolerance of Judge Shehata, who they say has played a role in tarnishing the reputation of a judiciary once proud of its independence and integrity. The authorities have repeatedly purged judges deemed pro-Islamist, and leaked recordings posted online and broadcast on satellite channels suggest military officials around Mr Sisi communicate with the judiciary and attempt to sway judges in sensitive cases.
Many legal experts believe he epitomises the deep flaws in Egypt’s opaque legal system, which provides little accountability over judges. Lawyers allege he is repeatedly handed weak cases that lack evidence. He was assigned his role by a panel of anonymous appellate court judges, which established a terrorism court after the 2013 coup against elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi.
“This general assembly of appellate judges is totally politicised,” alleged a trial lawyer. “And it’s a totally secret process. We don’t know any criteria they use. We have no idea how they choose certain judges for certain cases.”
Maha Yousef, a human rights attorney who has faced off against Judge Shehata, suggested the judge plays a crucial role for the regime. “He’s a show,” she said. “They count on him terrorising people into not going on to the streets. “
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