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'You don't need a lawyer even to tell you this sentence is unconstitutional'

On 1 November 2016, some 25-30 masked men in uniform raided the home of Hemeda Ali Hemeda and arrested his son Kareem. For 42 days, Kareem's family did not know what had happened to him or where he was taken.

"It was 2:00 am and those men took him in an armoured vehicle," Hemeda told MEMO. "I went to look for him everywhere, in hospitals, police stations, everywhere."

"He was forcibly disappeared."

After over a month of searching for his son, Hemeda decided to go to the State Security Prosecution headquarters to ask around until he eventually found out where he was being held.

"When I finally managed to visit him and speak to him, he told me he was being interrogated the entire time under torture and threats of electrocutions," Hemeda said. "He also sustained a bad shoulder injury from being tied and strung up, and I had to bring him medication for a period of time for his shoulder and ears."

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Kareem had visible marks all over his body resulting from the torture he suffered and was forced to sign a false confession implicating him in the case known to the media as the Three Pyramids Hotel case. He is now facing the death penalty, despite being only 17 years old at the time of the alleged crime.

"He wanted the pain to stop," Hemeda says.

Kareem is one of 26 defendants accused of attacking a tourist bus in front of the Three Pyramids Hotel in the Giza governorate in the Egyptian capital Cairo. Eleven of them are children aged 15-18 years old, many of whom are currently awaiting verdicts issued by the Supreme State Security Court.

Kareem has been charged with belonging to an outlawed group as well as committing violence, possessing weapons and accusations of funding the group he is accused of joining.

"Not only did my son not undergo a fair trial," Hemeda says, "he was forced to sign a confession under torture and he showed the judge the marks on his body, but this was not investigated further."

The Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedom (ECFR), along with a number of other human rights organisations, said in a statement that the charges brought against Kareem have no real foundation. "Children do not have an independent financial status, and cannot dispose of what they own freely without guardianship," the statement says.

Ahmed Al-Attar, a human rights defender with the ECFR, pointed out that the death sentence against Kareem violates Article 111 of the Egyptian Child Code, which stipulates that "no accused person shall be sentenced to death, life imprisonment, or forced labor if, at the time of committing the crime, he did not reach the age of eighteen years."

"The Ministry of Interior exercises systematic practices of arbitrary arrest, forced disappearance and torture in violation of all local and international norms and conventions," Al-Attar says.

The Egyptian government under the leadership of President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has drawn worldwide criticism for its crackdown on dissent and for using the death penalty as a reprisal tool, especially in the absence of the basic standards for fair trial.

"Egypt is steadily becoming a dictatorship and engages in systematic torture of prisoners," Mahmoud Gaber, head of Istanbul-based human rights group, Adalah, said. "Egypt is no longer a country that respects the law or the constitution. We as an organisation demand the government to respect the rule of law and end its arbitrary justice system."

The Egyptain authorities have referred Kareem's papers to the mufti for approval, which is the final step prior to implementing executions. If Kareem is executed, Egyptian authorities would not only be violating their own constitution, but also Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of The Child which is binding on Egypt.

Hemeda compared his son's case to the case of two Egyptian teens who were found guilty for raping then killing a 5-year-old girl in Port Said. Aged 16 and 17, both assailants were spared the death sentence, in accordance with the law, and were instead given prison time.

"You don't need a lawyer even to tell you that this sentence is unfair and unconstitutional. No one was even killed in the attack in which he, a minor, was accused of participating," Hemeda said, "and yet he was still sentenced to death."

Kareem had a normal childhood and grew up with five other siblings. "He was passionate about football growing up," Hemeda told MEMO, "and he was never into politics or anything like that."

"It wasn't until the 25 January revolution in 2011 that he took part in a protest," he continued. "Egyptians across the country rose up against the Husni Mubarak regime demanding dignity, freedom and social justice."

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"After the military coup, many young Egyptians including Kareem were not happy with what had happened and the way the country's first democratically-elected president was ousted," Hemeda continued. "Like many others, he took part in protests against the coup, but that was the extent of it."

Hemeda says that him and his family are in a constant state of fear, and always wary of speaking out. Feeling helpless, he hopes that more campaigning by human rights organisations and international pressure would make a difference in his son's case.

According to the ECFR, there were many cases in the past where children were either sentenced to death or wrongfully accused, such as the 2014 cases of Matai and Al-Adwa, and later in the case of Owseem in 2018.

The sentences were subsequently overturned by the court and reduced for these children, but that "does not invalidate the terrors encountered by them after being subjected to the possibility of ending their lives through execution."

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