- Attorney: Kafr El-Sheikh case shows how Egypt's judicial system "has become a joke"
- Convictions based on confessions made while under torture, families claim
(CNN)The number of civilians sentenced to death in Egypt's military courts leapt from 60 in 2016 to at least 112 in 2017, according to two independent rights groups.
Human rights advocates say the alarming numbers recorded by the Egyptian Coordination for Rights & Freedoms and the Initiative for Personal Rights are shocking -- but the stories behind them are even more harrowing.
What happened to four families from the northern city of Kafr el-Sheikh is a case in point. After more than a year of campaigning to have their loved ones' death sentences commuted in a case clouded by allegations of flaws in Egypt's judicial system, they received phone calls on Monday directing them to collect their relatives' bodies early Tuesday.
The families of Lotfy Khalil, Sameh Abdalla, Ahmed Abdelhadi and Ahmed Salama told CNN they received the calls from a police officer at an Alexandria prison.
The four defendants were accused of killing three military cadets in a bomb attack on a bus in Kafr El-Sheikh on April 15, 2015. Their subsequent trial and appeals became known in the media as the Kafr el-Sheikh case. Because the attack happened on a main street, the case came under military jurisdiction due to a recent presidential decree granting Egypt's military the authority for policing public places and land up to 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) from public roads.
The case is the latest in which civilians were convicted and sentenced to death by Egypt's military courts -- a process used by successive Egyptian governments since the mid-1960s. "The way this case has been handled is a classic example of how the judicial system here has become a joke," said Osama Bayoumi, a lawyer for the families.
In the last eight months, CNN has tracked the cases of 11 civilians who received the death penalty in military courts over the last two years.
In all cases, families claim their imprisoned relatives disappeared for weeks before they were charged by authorities who used confessions allegedly obtained under torture. Such treatment would be a violation of suspects' due process rights under Egypt's constitution. The Egyptian government has denied mistreating the detainees or using torture in interrogations.
In September this year rights group Human Rights Watch said in a report that Egyptian police and national security officers had carried out widespread and systematic torture of prisoners. The government also denied the allegations in the HRW report and again dismissed charges of systematic torture.
Tracking and reporting human rights violations in Egypt has been difficult.
Organizations such as the Egyptian Coordination for Rights & Freedoms and the Initiative for Personal Rights have been seen by international rights groups and the media as some