Story highlights

An Egyptian military court sentenced a toddler to life for alleged crimes at a 2014 protest

Boy was 16 months old at the time, and the case appears to be one of mistaken identity

Uproar over the sentence led officials to assure the boy and his father they will not be arrested

Cairo CNN  — 

Family members of a 3-year-old Egyptian boy who was sentenced last week to life in prison say they feel relieved after receiving assurances from officials that neither the boy nor his father will be arrested.

The boy’s father, Mansour Qorany Sharara, has returned to the family home in the southern Egyptian province of Fayyoum after nearly 18 months on the run. He had been avoiding authorities who had previously detained him when they came to arrest his young son.

In a surreal verdict, a military court last week found the boy, Ahmed Mansour Qorany Sharara, and 115 other people guilty of killing three people and sabotaging public and private property during a political demonstration in January 2014.

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Ahmed was 16 months old at the time of the alleged crime.

The guilty verdict, handed down February 16, provoked an uproar.

“How could people trust justice if they see this?” TV presenter Wael Elebrashy asked Saturday as he interviewed the boy’s father in a Cairo studio.

Ahmed was sleeping as his father held him during the interview. Sharara began to cry, pleading for help. He said he was worried his son would be imprisoned.

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Father detained for months, driven to flee

Sharara had already suffered a great deal because of the charges against his son.

When the police first came to arrest Ahmed in early 2014 and realized he was a toddler, they took his father into custody instead. Sharara was detained for four months before a judge released him.

Sharara has since spent nearly a year and a half on the run, evading authorities pursuing the case against the toddler, for fear he would be arrested, he told Elebrashy.

But in the wake of the public outrage over the case, officials gave assurances that neither father nor son would be arrested again.

An aide to the interior minister phoned Elebrashy’s show to say it was a case of mistaken identity. The aide, Gen. Abu Bakr Abdel Karim, promised that Ahmed and his father would not be jailed.

The military released a statement the following day saying the person wanted in the case was a 16-year-old who had fled authorities, and who had the same name as Ahmed.

The assurances did not completely allay the family’s fears, however.

During Sharara’s interview with Elebrashy, Ahmed’s mother, Hemat Mostafa, phoned the TV station to say the police had just left their home after inquiring about Ahmed and his father.

“If it is true that it was a mistaken identity, why did they come to arrest the boy? Why haven’t security arrested the right defendant then?” lawyer Mahmoud Abu Kaf said to CNN.

Charges stem from pro-Morsy protest

The charges at the heart of the matter stem from a January 2014 protest by supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsy and from ensuing clashes in Fayyoum, according to the Egyptian military.

The boy was sentenced along with 115 defendants – all found guilty of killing three people and sabotaging public and private property.

Attorneys for other defendants had shown the court Ahmed’s birth certificate in hopes of discrediting the investigations that led to their clients’ arrests.

“Security submitted their investigations 24 hours after the incident took place, naming 116 defendants,” Abu Kaf told CNN.

“We wanted to tell the judge that these are invalid investigations and our proof is the inclusion of the child, and a man who was out of the country when the incident in question took place, among the defendants,” he added.

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While the case might seem an aberration, it is evidence of a justice system that does not work, said Karim Ennarah, a criminal justice researcher.

“The main problem with that is that there are probably other cases that are not as striking where such mistakes are not corrected because you are not talking about a 2-year-old child, and the outcry is not as big – especially if you look at the number of people who are being processed by the criminal justice system at the moment.

“I would go as far as saying it is disintegrating, the justice system,” he said. “It’s on the verge of complete dysfunctionality. “

He added, “It’s a troubling trend and it will probably lead to just wide mistrust in the judiciary system, which has long-term effects that will be very difficult to reverse.”

Mass sentencing has become common in Egyptian civilian and military courts in the wake of Morsy’s ouster, drawing criticism from the United Nations and human rights groups.

In 2014, more than 1,000 people were sentenced to death in two cases involving the deaths of police officers during protests. The sentences were later reduced to life sentences for most of the defendants.

“Most cases involving big events are based on investigations and no tangible evidence. We’ve seen cases where defendants were either deceased years before the incident or in prison when it happened,” said Abu Kaf, the lawyer.

CNN’s Sarah El Sirgany reported from Cairo. CNN’s Susannah Cullinane wrote from Auckland, New Zealand, and Tim Hume wrote from London.