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Egypt's Death Penalty Fetish?

A shocking 26 men have been sentenced to death by Egypt's court today, for alleged connections to a terrorist organisation. Conor Sheils wonders if Cairo courts' lust for capital punishment is getting out of hand.

Egypt's interim government has sparked controversy by sentencing 26 men to death in absentia. The court alleged that 27 defendants - all bar one were tried in absentia - were responsible for forming a cell to attack the Suez Canal. Prosecutors charged the group with planning attacks on ships, security buildings, foreign tourists, Christians and police. One defendant, an 18-year-old youth, was spared.

An al-Qaeda-inspired group, Furqan Brigades, attacked vessels passing through the canal last year and have vowed to conduct more attacks in the future. However, it was not clear if those sentenced on Wednesday are linked to that group. The Cairo Criminal Court referred the verdict to a mufti, an Islamic leader, who has to validate the sentence, and set March 19th as a final verdict date. The sentence comes just weeks after a court condemned 14 Sinai jihadis to death in February.

Egyptian law states that those tried in their absence are automatically found guilty of all charges regardless of the evidence available. The news will undoubtedly raise questions among many about Egypt's use of the the death penalty. The most common method of execution in Egypt is by hanging, a method seen by barbaric by many human rights groups. The latest figures show a sharp rise in the number of people facing the hangman's noose, topping almost 50 in less than two months. The figures will worry many who fear that the Egyptian judiciary's lust for death is spiraling out of control.

A 2013 Amnesty International report found that at least 91 people were sentenced to death, including unfair trials by emergency courts. An emergency court sentenced to death 14 men, including eight in their absence, in relation to an attack which led to the killing of six people. They were also convicted of belonging to a Jihadist group.

In 2012 a similar study by Amnesty found that 123 people were sentenced to death, including at least 17 who were sentenced after unfair trials before military courts. The report singled out the case of Mohamed Ahmed Hussein, convicted of a drive-by killing of Coptic Christian worshipers as they left a church in Upper Egypt on 6th January 2010, was hanged on 10th October.

Meanwhile, in 2011, 115 people were sentenced to death for crimes including murder, drug offences and rape. The figures are startling and look set to grow after the interim government introduced the death penalty for a number of new offences including belonging to or promoting the Muslim Brotherhood. Human rights groups have long called for an end to capital punishment in Egypt in line with many Western countries. However, many in Egypt will wonder whether their calls are falling on deaf ears.