Critical Analysis: Death Sentences Announced in Egyptian Soccer Riots—Justice, or Continued Injustice?

Families of the victims react in court with joy after the issuance of the death penalty for 21 accused in last years Port Said football violence (NY Daily News)
Families of the victims rejoice after the issuance of the death penalty for 21 accused in last years Port Said football violence (NY Daily News)

On January 26, an Egyptian judge sentenced 21 people to death for their participation in a soccer game riot in February 2012. Dubbed the “massacre at Port Said,” the riot last year broke out after the Port Said-based Al-Masry team defeated Cairo’s Al-Ahly team. The riot left 74 dead, and 1,000 injured.  Intended to bring justice to those responsible for these riots, the ruling has only led to more death and destruction in Egypt as it sparked deadly clashes between security forces and relatives of the convicted.

In the courtroom in Cairo, “families of victims danced, applauded, and some broke down in tears of joy when they heard Judge Sobhy Abdel Maguid declare that the 21 men would be ‘referred to the Mufti,’ a phrase used to denote execution, as all death sentences must be reviewed by Egypt’s top religious authority.” In total, 73 defendants stood trial. Those not sentenced yet will be on March 9.

With more than 30 dead and nearly 300 injured in the days after the ruling, it is clear that residents of Port Said do not believe that the ruling was warranted. While fans in Cairo cheered as verdict was announced, rampaging fans in Port Said attacked the city’s jail where the defendants were being held and cut off access to the all roads leading in and out of the city. Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition aimed at the crowds. President Mohamed Morsi met with the National Defense Council, which includes the nation’s top military leaders, canceling a foreign trip in light of the crisis. Security forces could not control the violence.

Egypt’s football fans also demonstrated that they do not believe that justice has been served.  In a country obsessed with its premier sport, Egypt’s football season began this Saturday without a single fan in the stands. The players took the field “to the relative silence of secure military stadiums,” a stark contrast to the normally rambunctious crowds.

The sentencing of those responsible for the riots was intended to bring justice to the victims’ families.  In less than one week, however, the judgment has brought continued death and chaos to Egypt and moreover, has failed to uncover the truth of what caused the Port Said soccer massacre.  Journalists are forbidden from reporting on the case, and the state has issued no official report on the massacre.  Many believe that unchecked police practices were the root cause of the riots—as police failed to check fans for weapons upon their entrance to the stadium and the gates to the stadium were locked once the riots started.  Until the violence is checked, and truth uncovered, there will continue to be a failure of true and lasting justice for those of Port Said.

Brianna Evans is a 3L at the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and the Editor in Chief of the Denver Journal of International Law & Policy.