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The Show Trial of Port Said

[A mother of one of the twenty-one football fans sentenced to death in the 1 February 2012 Port Said stadium-riot case, yelling at media [A mother of one of the twenty-one football fans sentenced to death in the 1 February 2012 Port Said stadium-riot case, yelling at media "does my son look like a thug?" Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

The second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution, and the first under Muslim Brotherhood rule, was never going to pass peacefully. Nationwide, pro-democracy demonstrations were planned in protest at undemocratic decrees and increased police brutality under the current government, and the general lack of progress made in meeting the demands of the revolution raised two years earlier. In the Canal Zone cities of Suez, Ismailiyya and Port Said, it was marked by protests and battles between civilians and police, and a state of emergency was declared on 28 January. In the case of Port Said, protests were sparked by the outcome of the trial of seventy-five men accused of both premeditated and attempted murder during the Port Said Stadium disaster of 1 February 2012. That day, fans of Al-Ahly Football Club had travelled to the Suez Canal city of Port Said to support their team, but once inside the stadium, and with the score 3-1 to Al-Ahly, they were attacked, allegedly by fans of the Al-Masry team, native to Port Said. Seventy-four people died, seventy-two of them Al-Ahly supporters. The court announcement on 26 January, effectively sentencing twenty-one young men to death, shook Egypt, not only because of the severity of the sentence, but also because of the numerous question marks associated with the trial itself. The riots in anger at the court announcement resulted in at least thirty deaths, and hundreds of reported injuries. Yet despite worldwide news coverage of the announcement (often misstating the result as a verdict) and of the subsequent funerals, there has been almost no mention of the actual proceedings of the trial itself.

The announcement made by presiding judge Sobhi Abd al-Magid led to rapturous celebrations outside Al-Ahly Club’s Cairo headquarters, by Ultras Ahlawy fans who had repeatedly demanded justice for the seventy-four dead. However, the announcement is neither a verdict nor an ultimate conclusion to the case. Fifty-four defendants remain, including nine security officials on trial for “assisting with murder.” The final verdict, including any potential convictions, will be issued on 9 March. In fact, Judge Abd al-Magid’s announcement simply states that the Port Said Criminal Court has petitioned the Grand Mufti for his ruling on a potential verdict sentencing to death the first twenty-one individuals tried. Under Article 381 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, the only law cited in the announcement, all capital convictions must be submitted to the Grand Mufti for approval, who has ten days to respond. Even if the Grand Mufti advises commutation, he does not possess any judicial power, and the convictions may still ultimately be carried out, although serious questions of legitimacy may then arise. It is important to note that more than three weeks later, no response has yet been issued. Adding to the atmosphere of confusion, a new Grand Mufti was recently elected, and is due to take up his position in March, roughly around the time the final verdict is due. Whatever the Mufti’s response, there is no doubt that the Court’s final verdict shall be appealed.

Disputed Claims

Compounding this uncertainty, with no verdict yet in sight, it appears that the case against the seventy-five defendants has serious political motivations. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), still in power at the time of the disaster, did not accept any responsibility for the disaster, but nonetheless quickly promised that the perpetrators would be found. In the media, suggestions that the event was a coordinated effort by counter-revolutionaries and/or supporters of deposed president Hosni Mubarak were quickly swept aside as rumors, while speculation that this was a form of retribution by SCAF for the Ultras Ahlawy’s role in protesting against Mubarak were given scant coverage.

[Protesters in Port Said approaching Mansheyya Square on 1 February 2013. Protests erupted in response to the death of thirty-eight individuals in clashes between security forces and protesters days earlier after a court had effectively sentenced twenty-one locals to death in connection with the murder to Al-Ahly football fans in Port Said stadium on 1 February 2012. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

However, there are serious suspicions surrounding the SCAF’s claim. Firstly, Al-Ahly was winning the game 3-1, and, being severely outnumbered in their opposing team’s local stadium, fans were unlikely to have wanted to instigate violence. Secondly, despite losing an important game, it is unlikely that this defeat would have caused the Al-Masry fans to retaliate in such a deadly manner. It is important to note that football-related violence is not common in Egypt, and has rarely led to injuries, let alone deaths.

Thirdly, despite a general security vacuum throughout Egypt, including a lack of police presence on streets, and increasing tensions in the Sinai Peninsula, the appalling lack of security on the night of the disaster is extremely suspicious. Countless eye-witnesses have described the switching off of the stadium lights during the period of the most intense violence, the variety of weapons found within the stadiums, the locked gates as fans tried to escape, and indeed the complete lack of action by security officials within the stadium. Notably, locals from Port Said have denied that the disaster was perpetrated by their own football fans, and that it was merely a “football riot.” The governor of Port Said resigned in response, while many Egyptian human rights activists blamed SCAF for the security vacuum that ensued in the months following the revolution and that allowed the disaster to happen. Considering the severity of the incident and the abundance of unanswered questions, the Port Said disaster trial could have served as a platform for understanding and closure. Instead, it has emerged as a show trial.

Police Immunity

One of the main controversies surrounding the trial – which has become the cause of riots by civilians and Ultras alike at the Ministry of Interior in Cairo – is the fact that no police officers or security officials have yet been sentenced, seemingly absolving those specifically in charge of protecting civilians from any responsibility. This is a particularly sensitive issue, not least because of the police’s reputation – maintained through the Mubarak era and until today – for human rights violations and immunity from prosecution.

Indeed dozens of security forces were present at the stadium on the day of the match and yet they stood motionless and watched as the tragedy unfolded. Besides their duty to have defended the civilians and maintained order in the stadium, one would have expected the police to intervene out of humanity if nothing else. The unbroken line of police forces in video footage of the match suggests that they were ordered not to interfere in the tragedy, and this is yet another unanswered question that is central to the case. The security forces’ shocking inaction has not gone unnoticed, and has fueled much of the speculation regarding alternative reasons behind the disaster. Al-Ahly player Mohamed Abu Treika, who fled the pitch after the violence broke out, went on record saying that he believes “some security officials and policemen [are] involved in this. How else do we explain the complete lack of security interference during the game to protect fans who were being slaughtered?” Journalist Dima Khatib posed further questions, regarding the date of the incident, writing that the fact that the disaster occurred on the eve of the anniversary of the infamous “Battle of the Camel” during the revolution is no coincidence. That day, the Ultras Ahlawy had played a widely hailed role in resisting the attack of pro-Mubarak forces on camel and horseback in Tahrir Square, and had then banded together all over Egypt in protests against Mubarak and later SCAF. It is therefore indeed possible that this was a retaliatory attack against them.

Testimony and Proceedings

The courtroom in Port Said was plagued with conflicting and often confusing testimony. The trial started in April 2012 and faced several disruptions, with the majority of testimony being heard from August onwards. Major General Adel al-Ghadban, Military Governor of Port Said, is reported to have testified that the main cause of the deaths in the stadium was, in his view, “overcrowding.” When asked to provide details of the deaths of the victims, the governor claimed that he was not a doctor and could not comment on the matter. Here, the fact that the match was televised provides a useful counterpoint. Footage shows that the stadium was well below full capacity, and it is clear from footage that beatings and assaults were being carried out inside the stadium with a variety of weapons.

Other testimonies are equally disconcerting. One of the defense lawyers told the court in October 2012 that the stadium officer bringing charges against his client had provided no evidence whatsoever as to his guilt. He went on to say that the stadium officer ought to have been on trial himself for gross negligence on duty, which he said had resulted in the supporters’ deaths. The lawyer accused the stadium officer of failing to search supporters as they entered Port Said Stadium, highlighting the point that has become central to this case and to understanding who was behind the violence. Despite the lack of witness testimony against him, the defendant, Mohamed Rashad Quota, has been sentenced to death.

The Public Prosecution’s behavior during the trial has also been called into question. In November, a lawyer defending nine of the accused submitted a memorandum to the court protesting the prosecution’s conduct when taking witness testimonies, including complaints that the prosecutor did not listen to the witnesses. Again, this was not addressed in the 26 January announcement. Needless to say, a failure to properly assess witness testimony would have a serious effect on justice being served, and on reaching a full understanding of what happened on the night of the disaster. Other defense lawyers have claimed that their clients were arrested without any warrant or evidence, interrogated without their lawyer present, and that their clients were tortured during interrogation, all blatant violations of the right to a fair trial.

[Riot police conscripts spotted inside the Port Said governorate headquarters on 1 February 2013. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

As the court ruling of January 2013 drew nearer, and with Ultras Ahlawy demanding “Justice for the Seventy-four,” violence and protests were anticipated in the event that the outcome was not deemed satisfactory by protesters. In a move likely intended to avoid clashes, an external intervention was made five days before the court’s announcement was due. Prosecutor-General Talaat Abdullah – controversially appointed in late November 2012 following Mohamed Morsi’s unilateral Constitutional Declaration – called for six new defendants to be brought to trial, including several who were members of Mubarak’s now-defunct National Democratic Party. He also requested that new evidence be submitted to the court, but did not elaborate on its specific nature. With the government’s priority being to maintain stability and order, the introduction of new evidence, and especially its timing, suggests that external sources were trying to delay the trial and avoid potential violence at a time when demonstrations were already paralyzing the country’s infrastructure ahead of the anniversary of the revolution. 

Former MP Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat noted, “The question [then] is the value of this evidence. It is feared that the introduction of evidence is only motivated by a desire to pressure a postponement in the verdict.” This view was further vindicated when it was revealed that the report of the fact-finding commission – assembled by incoming president Morsi in July 2012 – upon which the new evidence was based had been ready for about a month. In the end, the court decided to reject the new evidence and the judge made his announcement based on the proceedings thus far.

Nevertheless, the six new defendants admitted to the trial by the Prosecutor-General did have a chance to testify, and their testimony added to the controversy surrounding the proceedings. One of the six new defendants, police inspector Khaled Mohamed Namnam, testified that the lights in the stadium had been deliberately turned off during the clashes, allowing the violence to continue. However, conflicting claims were then put forward by a high-ranking security official, the then head of Port Said’s Security Directorate Major General Essam Samak, who stated that Namnam’s allegations were completely false. Samak is on trial and his verdict will be declared on 9 March, along with eight other security officials. Meanwhile, it is unclear from news reports whether the testimony of the six defendants was struck out along with the findings of the fact-finding commission or whether it will be admitted to the case. Regardless, the claim that the lights were deliberately turned off has been mentioned repeatedly outside the court. Footage clearly shows the stadium floodlights being extinguished, while the official in charge of the stadium lights has claimed that he was ordered to turn them off by a member of the Central Security Forces at the stadium.

Ultimately, the announcement of twenty-one capital sentences came as a shock to many. Safwat Abdel Hamid, head of the Port Said Lawyer’s Syndicate and a member of the defense team, claimed that the evidence was “weak,” and that he had expected sentences of “ten to fifteen years” in the event that the prosecution could prove any causation. It has been reported that all seventy-five defendants have been charged with both “premeditated murder and attempted murder.” For murder to be premeditated the prosecution must prove one of two things: either, that there was a plan or plot before the football match to organize the killings, or that each of the individual defendants had gone to the stadium with the intention to cause death. Neither of these is likely to have been conclusively proven. Safwat Abd al-Hamid has publicly stated these concerns:

Forensic reports prove that most of the victims died as a result of suffocation as they scrambled to find an exit. This means that there was no intention of murder on the part of Masry fans, and that the charge of premeditated murder leveled against them has to be changed to an accusation that has to do with rioting and disturbances or something of the sort – it could not be proven that there was an agreement among the defendants to carry out a crime that happened on the spur of the moment.

The charges brought against the defendants are themselves dubious. There has been a clear focus on murder, while a host of lesser charges pertinent to the case – manslaughter, assault and battery, civil disturbance, destruction of public property, theft – were ignored. Furthermore, there are widespread reports and observations that defendants were rounded up in a haphazard manner and arrested, suggesting that authorities were desperate to find perpetrators, and that no warrants or actual evidence were considered. Moreover, in Egypt, capital punishment is reserved for cases of killing with intent, with certain exceptions such as rape resulting in death. It is not a sentence that can be handed down for assault and battery, which is what most of the defendants were expected to be charged with. Moreover, considering the chaos that ensued in the stadium, it is highly unlikely that any particular action with which a defendant was charged could be related to a particular injury or death, unless there were conclusive video evidence.

[Protesters marching in agony while holding posters of locals killed in the clashes that followed the court ruling. Photo by Jonathan Rashad]

Politics over Justice

In light of all these unanswered questions, the twenty-one death sentences seem to have had more to do with politics than with serving justice. Specifically, the 26 January announcement appears to have been a means of quickly appeasing an enraged sector of the population and avoiding further protest, with little consideration for genuine fact-finding. There are obvious motives for those currently in power in Egypt to conduct a swift trial with a strong verdict at its end. The media has repeatedly referred to the disaster as a massacre, fueling the public’s rage and raising expectations of a dramatic result. With thousands of Ultras demonstrating in Tahrir Square for justice in the weeks before the announcement, the need to maintain stability and calm in an already emotionally charged atmosphere was paramount for an already fragile government, with a Minister of Interior just days into the job. The new Egyptian leadership’s ability to govern the nation effectively has been constantly challenged, and the weeks leading up to the January 25 Revolution’s anniversary were full of events that simply added fuel to the fire, such as the 22 November Constitutional Declaration, the killing of protestors outside the Presidential Palace in December, and the Constitutional Referendum, all of which were causes for massive demonstrations and continued to sow doubt regarding the government’s competence and integrity.

With this in mind, an announcement strongly in favor of the Ultras and their cause may have momentarily settled tensions over the issue, and helped to avoid further violence. Despite the dozens of deaths that resulted from the riots following the announcement, it is probable that the government’s priority was to maintain calm in the capital, especially because that is where the foreign media is centered. Also likely is that those in charge simply did not anticipate such an intense backlash from the Canal Zone cities, and its development into a day of civil disobedience in Port Said on 17 February. The announcement also served as a show of strength by a Brotherhood-dominated government, intent on establishing itself as a powerful force independent of both the National Democratic Party and the SCAF.

Unanswered Questions

From procedural flaws and dubious motives, to the abundance of answered questions, there are many reasons to doubt the integrity of the Port Said trial. The families of the seventy-four victims deserve justice, and so far this trial has not provided it. In fact, it is possible that Egyptians are today faced with even more questions than they were at the beginning of the trial. It is significant that for such a sensitive case, one which has commanded the attention of the entire nation and international media, so little official information has been released. The only information available has come through the various news networks with access to the courtroom, and from the limited statements issued occasionally by defense lawyers. The full transcript of the case leading to the announcement has not been released by the courts or the Ministry of Justice. There has been no official comment regarding any of the legal irregularities. The announcement made by Judge Abd al-Magid barely lasted minutes, and even then, was inconclusive. The Grand Mufti’s position is unclear. The principle of a fair trial has been violated in a myriad different ways, and members of the defense counsel have recorded grave concerns regarding the prosecution and the charges themselves.

Meanwhile, speculation that this was more than “just a football riot” remains, and is completely reasonable. Eye-witness testimony, medical reports of injuries, and online footage have shed more light on the matter than any official statement or report on judicial proceedings. Evidence suggests that, amidst political motives to interfere in the outcome, public order and maintaining power are likely to have taken priority over fact-finding and truth-telling. Even the report of the fact-finding commission was disregarded, and Egypt has yet to witness a security official sentenced for harming civilians in this and countless other cases. Tragically, the lives of twenty-one men hangs in the balance, and the fates of fifty-four others are meant to be decided in the coming weeks under this same canopy of corruption.

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