Deaths in police custody happen frequently but deaths in the custody of the courtroom are not supposed to happen at all. Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi died in a Cairo courtroom last Monday while defending himself against charges of espionage.
He had been the democratically elected president after the Arab spring in 2011 but was ousted from power by a military junta headed by Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013.
Morsi’s supporters believe the prosecutions he faced were politically motivated. He was addressing the court when he collapsed and died of a cardiac arrest. He was buried with indecent haste within hours under cover of darkness. In Islamic tradition burial normally takes place in daylight within 24 hours. This can be longer if foul play is suspected which it is in the case of Morsi, though more as a result of his treatment in detention than as a direct cause of his death.
According to Human Rights Watch his death was ‘entirely predictable’, the suspicion being that his detention by the Egyptian authorities was in breach of the Nelson Mandela Rules on minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners that prohibit torture and inhuman and degrading treatment of prisoners. They also stipulate that medical care should be of a standard equal to that available in the community in line with Hippocratic principles.
The rules bear the name of Mandela, the first black president of South Africa who spent 27 years in prison in South Africa. Unlike Morsi, he did time before he became president of his country.
According to a report of a committee of British MPs and human rights lawyers of March 2018 Morsi was detained in solitary confinement 23 hours a day and denied essential medical treatment – an insidious method of torture that seems to be prevalent in the Middle East.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was even more strident in his accusation as he loathes the regime of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He said that Morsi was deliberately left to die in his glass cage without urgent medical attention that could have saved his life.
Normally a patient who suffers a cardiac arrest has to be defibrillated immediately to restore the natural rhythm of his heart. The procedure calls for a very prompt diagnosis and an application of an electric shock to the chest. Given his age and health, and the stress of the trial you would think that a defibrillator would have be readily available for immediate use yet apparently none was deployed.
However without evidence it is hard to say what really happened. Not so, in the case of Slobodan Praljak the Croatian general who committed suicide in the face of the court. He had been convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague of crimes against humanity and breaches of the genocide convention for the massacre of Muslim civilians in Bosnia in 1993 and had appealed against his convictions. Just after the court delivered judgement rejecting his appeal, Praljak stood up and drank a glass of poison. Unlike Socrates, who drank the poison hemlock as a mark of respect for the laws that convicted him, Praljack rejected the legitimacy of the court and his conviction and committed suicide in the face of the court to show contempt for the international tribunal and its laws.
The court was cleared immediately and the dock cordoned off as a crime-scene and an investigation was launched by the Dutch authorities. Praljak was attended to by first responders immediately and taken to hospital by air ambulance.
In due course the investigation concluded that the poison was potassium cyanide; that he had it with him a long time; and that there was no evidence that he had been assisted in his suicide by any one else.
There was another death in custody in a case before the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. It was that of Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian leader, who was prosecuted for crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide. His death was similar to that of Morsi in the sense that it was attributed to his prolonged incarceration and the stress of conducting his own defence that in the end took its toll.
Milosevic did not, however, die in the dock but in his cell; and the court ruled posthumously that he was not responsible for the crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs against the Muslim civilian population during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. Somehow I doubt the Egyptian court would acquit Morsi posthumously.
The most gruesome and bizarre death in custody was that of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi who attended the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018 never to be seen again.
His murder was referred to UN Rapporteur on Human Rights, Agnes Callamard, who after a thorough investigation concluded this week that there was direct and circumstantial evidence that Jamal Khashoggi was a victim of a “brutal and premeditated murder, planned and perpetrated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia” including Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman; although the evidence against the Crown Prince required more investigation and appears to be more of omission than commission.
Agnes Callamard also castigates Saudi Arabia for seriously undermining the efforts of Turkish investigators by failing to provide proper access to the Saudi consulate in good time to enable an effective crime-scene investigation in line with international standards. As if that were not enough last Thursday the English Court of Appeal banned British arms sales to Saudi Arabia for their unlawful use in Yemen.
Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a part-time judge