Hanging Judges

Amal Clooney vs. Egypt’s Courts

Cairo should have listened to Amal Clooney last year when she recommended judicial reforms. Now she’s representing a jailed Al Jazeera journalist. Things could get ugly.

01.04.15 6:31 PM ET

PARIS—When Amal Clooney was still known as Amal Alamuddin, and her fame was limited mainly to matters of international law and human rights, she put together a report on Egypt’s brutally politicized judiciary that recommended major changes in the way it operated.

The document, published last February by the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (PDF), was cool and analytical, and, as a result, all the more damning.

It chronicled the history of the courts under the three regimes that have followed the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, showing that in every case the judiciary was used for arbitrary political ends, jailing people on vague charges of conspiracy and for “insulting the military,” “insulting the president,” or “insulting Islam.”

At the time, advisers told Alamuddin that if she went to Cairo to launch the report, as she hoped to do, she might well be arrested for precisely the kind of arbitrary reasons she documented in the report.

Unsurprisingly, and unfortunately for the Egyptian people, the current government headed by General-turned-President Abdel Fattah al Sisi took none of the International Bar Association’s recommendations, did not use the new constitution to remedy the worst judicial problems of the old, and has, in fact, increased dramatically the persecution of anyone deemed politically suspect. Some “hanging judges” have handed down hundreds of death sentences at a time.

In September, Alamuddin married actor George Clooney and became an instant global celebrity, but she has continued her legal work, and she has followed up on the Egyptian situation. She now represents Mohamed Fahmy, one of the Al Jazeera journalists, along with Egyptian Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste, who have been imprisoned in Cairo, now, for more than a year.

On New Year’s Day, a new judge in the Al Jazeera case called for a new trial. But the trumped-up “conspiracy” charges against the three were never about crime and punishment, as such, and certainly not about justice. They were based on next to no evidence, and clearly were intended not only to punish the jailed reporters, but to intimidate any journalists working in the country, since they can never know when telling the truth will “insult” the people in power or be deemed a conspiracy against the government.

As a result, Amal Clooney holds out little hope that a new trial for the Al Jazeera prisoners will be any fairer than the previous one. She says she will have to fight in “other ways” to get her client freed. “Unfortunately we have to conclude that we can’t rely on these Egyptian court processes to achieve a fair or swift result,” she told The Guardian newspaper.

Clooney did not specify what those other tactics or strategies might be, but University of Michigan professor Juan Cole, commenting on the case, points to the Egyptian economy as Cairo’s critical vulnerability.

The country desperately needs foreign investment, and Cole asks the critical questions: “Why would any international entrepreneur risk putting billions into a country where reliable information on the local economy is not available from the censored press, where the ruling officer corps claims to have cured AIDS, where television comedians are fined millions of dollars for jokes, and where foreign journalists are jailed for reporting the news (under the pretext that an Australian non-Muslim professional correspondent is part of a secret Muslim Brotherhood ‘Marriott Cell’ aiming at overthrowing the Egyptian government)?”

“What if there were a legal dispute between the foreign investor and his or her Egyptian partners or collaborators?” Cole demanded. “Could the Egyptian courts, where the choice of judge for a case is often made politically by those with an interest in its outcome, be trusted to be fair to the foreigner? What about the courts’ inability or refusal to follow basic rules of evidence?”

Amal Clooney, with her global fame added to her legal acumen, can drive home such points again and again until the pain makes Egypt’s leaders decide that for political reasons they should have listened to her and to the International Bar Association in the first place.

For now, the Egyptian government has issued a statement saying that Clooney is free to enter Egypt “whenever she wants.” It doesn’t say if she’ll be let out again.