Young boy in Egypt
Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP/Getty

The life sentence given to a four-year old boy in Egypt whose name was included on a summons list by accident is a violation of human rights and "exemplifies the arbitrariness of Egyptian courts that are used to punish political opponents of the government", a rights group has claimed.

A Cairo military court presiding over the mass trial of 116 defendants, including four-year old Ahmed Mansour Qurani Sharara, delivered life sentences to each of them on 16 February after investigators and prosecutors failed to remove the little boys's name, even though the authorities knew it was included by mistake.

The defendants were sentenced in relation to a January 2014 anti-government protest in Fayoum, 65miles south of Cairo, which pitted supporters of Egypt's deposed President Mohamed Morsi against riot police. The authorities blamed the violence, which left three people dead and several injured after security forces dispersed the protesters with tear gas and live ammunition, on supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Following the incident, national security officers of the Interior Ministry recommended charges, approved by civilian prosecutors, against a seemingly random assortment of Fayoum residents.

"This case exemplifies the banality of repression in Egypt today," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said. "Police, prosecutors, and judges aren't even bothering to check basic facts as they rush to pack defendants off to prison."

Egypt protest in Fayoum
Four-year old Ahmed Mansour Qurani Sharara was among 116 defendants sentenced in relation to a January 2014 anti-government protest in Fayoum, 65miles south of Cairo Reuters/Al Youm Al Saabi Newspaper

Police 'looking for a three-year-old'

Police went to Ahmed Mansour Qurani Sharara's family's home in 2014 to arrest him in connection with a protest, the defence lawyer said. When his father told them that the person they wanted was his young son, officers did not believe him. He then presented his son, who was three at the time, along with the child's birth certificate. The police arrested the father instead and held him for four months.

According to a statement posted on Facebook on 21 February by a spokesman for the armed forces, however, the person listed in the case was not the toddler, but a 16-year-old student whom police had tried to arrest in 2014 but who had fled. The spokesman failed to explain why police in 2014 had gone to the three-year-old's home or why they arrested his father.

More inconsistency appeared when Major General Abu Bakr Abd al-Karim, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said in a phone call during a televised interview on 20 February, that the 16-year-old was apparently the boy's uncle. The father denied this, adding the toddler's uncle was 52.

The boy's mother, who also called in during the televised interview, said that police had come to the family house again that day to arrest the father and son.

Egypt court
Ahmed Mansour Qurani Sharara, four, was sentenced to life imprisonment along with 115 other defendants, at the High Court in Cairo Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

Egypt's 'arbitrary' trials

The recommended charges were handed down to Fayoum residents, including the brothers of two of the dead protesters, a dead man and a man who was not in the country at the time, a human rights lawyer who researched the case.

According to the charging document, all defendants faced allegations of killing the three slain protesters, attempting to kill eight others, and deliberately destroying government property, and the 116 were accused using force and violence against government employees, including the army and police. The defendants have one opportunity to appeal the verdict, to a military appeals court.

Egyptian civilian prosecutors have retroactively transferred thousands of civilians to military trials since October 2014, when PresidentAbdel Fattah el-Sisi issued a decree allowing military courts to try any crime committed on "public" or "vital" property, including electricity stations, gas pipelines, oil wells, railroads, road networks, bridges, public universities, and any similar state-owned property.

The country's military courts proceedings, which operate under the authority of the Defence Ministry, not the civilian judicial authorities, "typically do not protect basic due process rights or satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law", HRW said.

"Children can also face charges before military courts, which Human Rights Watch opposes in all circumstances," the group added.

Can Egypt sentence children to life imprisonment?

The Article 111 of Egypt's Child Law (2008) prohibits the sentencing of children to life imprisonment, death or forced labour.

The law has also raised the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven to 12 years.

Though Egypt's constitution allows military court trials for civilians, the practice violates international law, including the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which Egypt's parliament ratified in 1984. The charter states that civilians should never face military trial.

The expert committee that interprets and monitors state compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Egypt is a state party, has urged Egypt to "ensure that children are never brought before and prosecuted under the military justice system and to ensure that any sentence handed down to children by military courts be considered null and void," in accordance with their rights in juvenile justice.