Since ancient times, members of the judiciary have served as the wise, careful, farsighted and impartial arbitrators in litigious disputes. The early Muslim leaders started a trend which no people before them had ever done; they separated the judiciary and politics. They then did something else that nobody else had ever done; there was no immunity for the governor before the court, even in a personal feud. This was helped by the fact that governing in Islam is not subject to the sultan's rulings; rather it is subject to the Shari'ah. Although many of the rulers (and judges) did not adhere to these practices, they remained a beacon of for legal principles bringing light to the darkness of the world.
The judiciary in modern democracies has evolved, affirming these principles and expanding them. Despite the many drawbacks of the justice systems in developed democracies, they remain a haven for students of justice, even if it is the government which is the unjust party. In Britain, we have seen recently how victims of injustice which occurred when the state was fighting against terrorism have subsequently been treated fairly in British or European courts.
In Egypt, judges have faced a dilemma ever since mobs were incited to launch an attack on the head of the judiciary, Abdul Razak Sanhoori, in 1954, for his defence of the independence of the judiciary and the constitutional principles. From that point onwards, the judiciary lost its independence and prestige, and was no longer able to defend itself or the victims of arbitrary detention, torture and oppression. Many Egyptians speak of the inconceivable corruption that has for long affected the Egyptian justice system as a whole, including the lawyers. The victims are not only opponents, but people who were wronged and robbed of their money and rights.
What started after the sinister coup on the third of July is a restructuring of the equation, because the judiciary is no longer the victim before the citizen, or helpless as it was in the past. This does not mean that the judiciary was innocent in the past, for it issued harsh judgments against innocent people. We have not heard of a single judge who refused to sentence a defendant who protested that he was tortured, or was in favour of an Egyptian citizen who was killed or tortured, including Khalid Saeed, the leader of the youth revolution.
Nevertheless, what we have seen after the coup is a development of another kind; sectors in the Egyptian judiciary "are leading the revolution", starting with the President of the Constitutional Court, who has committed two major crimes: he nominally heads a government that has turned against the Constitution, and he, the Egyptian people and the whole world know that he is just a puppet driven from behind a transparent curtain by the army. The courts and the entire justice system have been turned into a tool to overturn justice, not to establish it.
This week's incredibly harsh judgments against students who demonstrated against injustice and tyranny are without precedent even in the worst days of the Nasser era. We are faced with a "judiciary" that harasses children and deliberately destroys their future, using terrorist policies reminiscent of the darkest period of colonialism. Is there a civilised country in the world today that sentences juveniles to life imprisonment rather than honouring them for their peaceful stand on behalf of the dignity of all of their fellow citizens?
Some may compare what is happening in Egypt to the dark Stalinist covenant in Bolshevik Russia. There, mock courts would try dissidents on fabricated charges and the judge would sentence them to death or exile to Siberia. However, the difference is that Russia conducted trials in special tribunals, where it was the intelligence services that practiced torture and brainwashing until the accused would happily admit to all the crimes just to bring the torture to an end. What is happening in Egypt is that the judiciary is doing all of these tasks alone, from fabricating charges to the verdict and sentencing.
No one in Egypt laments the fate of young men whose bad luck landed them in the hands of tragic and farcical courts, because the sentences given resemble ridiculous jokes; they are worthless and will not last. But one does lament the unfortunate self-destruction of the Egyptian judicial system which is taking the country with it in order to play this inadequate role. Even if there remain rational people in the system, they are likely to be tried on charges of insulting the Egyptian judiciary. What insult could be greater than the courts' own as they inflict violence upon Egypt's children and youth solely for trying to defend the nation's freedom and dignity?
Maybe the judges believe that with these heinous acts they are defending the coup regime, which is unfortunate. Had they been right and succeeded through judicial terrorism to transform Egypt into a submissive humiliated nation that controls people by force, then they could enjoy their victory.
We need to remind them of the history of Egypt, though, and the Denshawai incident in particular. It was inexcusable, but the terrorist judicial system sentenced four men to death, gave life sentences to four others, and sentenced yet others to prison terms and floggings for killing a British soldier who had in fact died of heat stroke. Did that injustice terrorise the Egyptian nation into submission and subject it to colonialism? It did not.
Quite the opposite, in fact, and the backlash began in Britain. There, led by good men like George Bernard Shaw, a fierce media campaign was launched and all of the prisoners were released as a result. This did not stop them however. The president of the court in question, Boutros-Ghali, who became prime minister later, was executed in Egypt in 1910, less than four years after the Denshawai incident. We do not need to remind today's Egyptian judges that the spirit of Denshawai went on to ignite the 1919 revolution which rid Egypt of colonialism and led to its independence. They have been warned.
This is a translation of the text published in Al Quds Al Arabi on 28 November, 2013
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.