Posted: 26 Mar 2014 11:27 PM PDT
As hundreds of young men are sentenced to death for the killing of one policeman, the state is gearing up to crush its Islamist enemies.
gyptian Judge Saeed Youssef Mohamed presided over the mass trial of 683 people on charges of murder, incitement to violence, and sabotage on March 25 — including Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie — in the southern Egyptian city of Minya. The defense lawyers in the case boycotted the proceedings, but Mohamed demanded that the case go forward anyway.
It’s not hard to see why the defendants might not like their chances. On March 24, Mohamed handed down one of the world’s largest death penalty verdicts ever, ruling that 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi would face the gallows for killing a police officer and attacking a police station last summer.
None of the accused or their lawyers was present on March 24, when Mohamed issued his sentence. The presiding judge in this Upper Egyptian court issued his damning ruling after a trial that lasted just two sessions. The verdict has not only dealt another blow to Egypt’s reputation abroad, but it has shown how far some elements of the state are prepared to go in crushing supporters of the former Islamist government. It is impossible to know whether Mohamed was acting alone or on orders from the central government.
The defendants, many of whom are members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, were accused of jointly murdering Mostafa El-Attar, deputy police commander of the southern town of Matay. The killing occurred on Aug. 14 in the aftermath of the forced dispersals of two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo that left hundreds dead.
The 545 people in the mass trial were also charged with attempting to murder two security officers, participating in an illegal rally, and vandalizing public and private property. Only 16 defendants were acquitted.
The news of the mass death sentence sent shock waves across the world. Human Rights Watch referred to the ruling as a “sham,” while Amnesty International’s Middle East deputy director, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said it was “the largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we’ve seen in recent years.”
Not everyone, however, condemned the ruling. Several figures within pro-government Egyptian media celebrated the expanding crackdown on Morsi supporters. “I salute the fairness and justice of our judiciary in defiance of those killers and all those who attack it,” said Ahmed Moussa, the presenter of a show on a private Egyptian satellite channel. “May they be 10,000 [sentenced to death], 20,000, not 500. We are not sad; we are happy.”
The extraordinary hearings, which began on March 22, were in shambles from the beginning. During the first hearing, 147 defendants were crammed into a courtroom cage that had been specially modified to fit the enormous number of people on trial.
Judge Mohamed yelled at the defense lawyers, accusing them of being disruptive and “discussing politics,” reported Reuters. The defense teams, meanwhile, furiously argued with him in an unsuccessful attempt to get the judge changed.
“We simply couldn’t prepare the court case in time. The case file is 4,000 pages long,” said Ahmed Shabeeb, one of the defendants’ lawyers. “The court didn’t even listen to our request for more time. We couldn’t defend them,” he said.
The hearing lasted just 45 minutes, during which key witnesses were barred from giving their testimonies. The judge then adjourned the session and demanded that the lawyers submit a written defense. “He didn’t even look at the evidence,” Shabeeb said.
Two days later, Mohamed forbade the lawyers from attending the final hearing and issued the verdict to a courtroom of police officers.
The verdict, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that Egypt will actually execute the 529 defendants. The case will next head to the Court of Cassation, which examines whether the legal process of criminal court cases followed the letter of the law. In this case, the procedural errors were so blatant that it is unlikely that the verdict will be upheld, said Karim Ennarah, a criminal researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
But even if the sentence is not carried out, the verdict has propelled Egypt back into international headlines for all the wrong reasons — and has wrecked some tentative signs of improvement in the country’s human rights environment. Prominent secular activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah, who has been in jail since December and is on trial for allegedly organizing an illegal protest and assaulting a police officer, was finally released on bail on March 23. Meanwhile, interim President Adly Mansour personally wrote letters to jailed Al Jazeera correspondents Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy promising them a free and speedy trial.
This ruling, however, is a sign that some elements within the Egyptian state still favor a drastic escalation of violence against Morsi supporters. Doing so might come at the cost of the rule of law: After the trial’s March 22 opening session, Tarek Fouda, head of the lawyer’s syndicate in Minya, said that the presiding judge had “veered away from all legal norms and that he breached the rights of the defense.”
Fouda promised to submit a report on what had occurred to Egypt’s justice minister. The Justice Ministry was unavailable for comment on the case.
“I think it’s safe to say all 529 people were not involved in collectively killing one police officer. That would be an unprecedented feat of group work,” said Ennarah. He said March 24′s ruling was part of an “alarming” six-month trend of Egyptian courts giving “reckless and brutal rulings to intimidate and terrorize opposition protesters.”
The families of those sentenced, meanwhile, have been thoroughly disillusioned about the state of the judicial process. For them, this is solely a political attack on supporters of the former Islamist government.
“We don’t even consider it a verdict. At first we were surprised by the huge numbers on trial; now we just think it’s nonsense,” said Mohamed Hafez, whose two brothers, Hossam, 30, and Mostafa, 31, both businessmen, were sentenced to death on March 24.
Hafez told Foreign Policy that the investigation actually uncovered proof that his siblings are not in the Muslim Brotherhood — but they were sentenced to death anyway. “Maybe they’re trying to terrify people to stop going to demonstrations or oppose the regime,” he said.
The verdict comes just a few months before Egyptians are supposed to vote for a new president — a critical step in the military-authored “road map to democracy.” But as Egypt’s newest 529 occupants of death row can attest, the country remains a long way from the stability and rule of law that Morsi’s ouster was supposed to usher in.
“This is the largest death penalty in Egypt to the best of my knowledge,” Mohamed Zaree, program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, concluded. “This is not a verdict; it is a massacre.”
Posted: 26 Mar 2014 11:24 PM PDT
MH370′s Humbling Reminder About Technology — And Its Operators
The tale of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 evolves by the minute. Most likely it will have changed yet again by the time you finish reading this. But whatever the ultimate solution to the puzzle may be, it is not too early to start asking what it means.
Here are the facts as we understand them at the moment. On March 8, a plane en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing went missing. There was no indication that anything untoward was happening before it stopped communicating with air traffic controllers. Shortly after it went silent, it began to deviate dramatically from its preprogrammed flight path — again, with no indication of trouble. The plane managed to cross the Malay Peninsula and head into the Strait of Malacca without attracting any attention before it disappeared from radar entirely. According to the British firm Inmarsat, the plane was still airborne somewhere along a giant arc stretching from the southeastern Indian Ocean to Kazakhstan more than seven hours after departing from Kuala Lumpur.
One clear lesson, as Jessica Trisko Darden, an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, has recently argued, is that the countries of Southeast Asia are incapable of monitoring, let alone controlling, their airspace. They are also poor at mounting a swift, coordinated response to disaster. They excel, however, at blaming each other. This should raise eyebrows in Washington as the United States "pivots" to Asia. Their response illustrates that any cordiality among players in the region is but a thin veneer. It also calls into question the competence and reliability of the very states on which the United States would depend in the event of a serious confrontation with China. Perhaps even more ominously, China's eagerness to outperform the United States in finding the missing plane would appear to have unseemly geopolitical overtones. It may even reflect Beijing's sensitivity to domestic legitimacy, in view of the fact that most of the passengers aboard MH370 were Chinese nationals.
But there are larger lessons as well — lessons with more than just regional significance. First, the good news. There is no evidence, and by most expert accounts it is extremely unlikely, that MH370 vanished as a result of malfunction. When vital systems in modern airliners fail, they trigger alarms. Backup systems kick in. Pilots report trouble if they are in radio range. There is no indication that any of this happened. Modern airliners are marvels of engineering, so it is no wonder that the odds of being in a fatal commercial airline accident are a mere 1 in 3.4 million. Fewer than a quarter of the fatal accidents that do occur are the result of mechanical failure. You are safer in an airplane than in a bathtub.
The only onboard systems whose performance is in question at the moment in this case are the transponder, which enables ground operators to identify the aircraft and provides crucial flight information, and the Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS), which monitors system health and automatically relays faults to maintenance bases. These stopped working within minutes of the crew's final, perfectly routine radio contact with ground controllers on the morning of March 8. It seems increasingly certain that these systems were switched off deliberately.
As far as anyone can tell, all of the ground-based hardware also worked. Primary radars, secondary radars, and radio communications all held up their end of the bargain in trying to maintain contact with MH370. Again, this is what we should expect. The relevant technology is very good, and is getting better all the time. TheHuffington Post notwithstanding, there is no valid comparison between MH370 and Amelia Earhart's fateful final flight. A Boeing 777 operating in well-monitored airspace today is to Earhart's plane as the Internet is to smoke signals.
Now, the bad news. Although the mechanical systems seem to have worked well, the human systems failed repeatedly, both at the individual and group levels. For one, if the disappearance of MH370 was deliberate, then existing security measures failed to thwart it. In addition, Malaysian military radar operators failed to notice, misperceived, or wilfully ignored the plane's radar track as it headed westward. Thai radar operators noticed, but failed to report it because no one asked. Other countriesmay have failed to notice or report the plane's odd path as well because of incompetence, flawed procedures, or fear of embarrassment. For days after the plane disappeared, although there was ample information indicating that the jet had headed toward the Indian Ocean, Malaysia and an increasing number of other countries kept looking for it in the Gulf of Thailand.
There is even worse news. Much of the confusion and uncertainty could easily have been prevented. It is almost inconceivable that, nearly 13 years after 9/11, pilots can still turn off transponders by themselves. (In those rare circumstances when it might be desirable for a pilot to turn off a transponder, there is no technical obstacle to requiring an additional ground-based signal to do it.) Moreover, there is an eight-year-old technology available — Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B — that provides more detailed and more reliable flight and positioning information than does a standard-issue transponder. Although MH370 had ADS-B, and although amateurs on the ground picked up its signal, air traffic controllers did not. Across the world, countries have been slow to embrace it because of bureaucratic inertia and misplaced safety concerns. (In the United States, the FAA does plan to adopt it nationwide, but not before 2020.)
If ADS-B isn't your style, continuous-broadcast GPS is another readily-available technology that airlines can use to monitor their fleets. But as Peter Parrish, vice president of operations for Latitude Technologies, which produces such a system, has lamented, "For some reason, the major carriers continue to rely exclusively on old technology to track their aircraft when one of our boxes could be tucked into an out-of-the-way spot on the aircraft to report location on a continuous basis, including on an accelerated basis right up to the point of impact in the event of a crash." Ironically, while Malaysia Airlines' regional subsidiary, MASwings, has embraced this technology, its parent company has not.
In one sense, the bad news is not surprising. Although technology advances by leaps and bounds, improvement in our mental ability to perceive and analyze the world takes place on an evolutionary timescale. Cognitive, bureaucratic, social, and cultural barriers to learning are ubiquitous. I have spent most of my professional career trying to understand why national leaders — who are almost always very smart people — make so many mistakes, and the answer is simply that they are human. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk said to me toward the end of his life, "I’ve met and worked with a good many people whose names are in the history books or in the headlines. I have never met a demigod or a superman. I have only seen relatively ordinary men and women groping to deal with the problems with which they are faced."
We have come to appreciate that our rapidly increasing technological sophistication — which has brought to us such benefits as safe, convenient air travel — carries with it great potential cost. It gives us a greater ability to destroy, of course. But, as my colleague Thomas Homer-Dixon, CIGI Chair of Global Systems at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, has pointed out, it can also lead to the creation of vulnerable, overly-tightly-connected, and inadequately resilient systems unless we pay careful attention. We have great difficulty appreciating, apparently, that individuals and organizations are often the weakest links in those systems. National leaders don't think of themselves or their counterparts elsewhere as ill-informed, confused, emotional, fallible, and perhaps even slightly mad some of the time. Nor do they think of the complex departments, ministries, agencies, and militaries over which they have authority and nominal control as marginally to severely dysfunctional virtually 100 percent of the time. But they are.
In a tense, heavily-armed region such as East or Southeast Asia, it would be a good idea for leaders to reflect on the limited capacities of individuals and organizations and the inevitability that they will make mistakes. And at no time are mistakes more likely than in times of crisis. The bizarre story of MH370 should make the importance of that insight painfully clear.
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