In the height of summer 2018, the ancient Egyptian monastery of St. Macarius, in Wadi Natrún, a desert valley about 100 kilometers northwest of Cairo, became the scene of a novel murder mystery. Before dawn broke on July 29, Egyptian Bishop Anba Epifanio, 68, a prominent but controversial figure in the Coptic church, was found dead in a pool of blood in front of his cell.
He also had a fractured skull. That night, the monastic complex housed more than 400 people, but there were no witnesses to the crime and the surveillance cameras did not work. Still, authorities soon targeted two of the 130 monks residing at the monastery, Isaiah and Falconous.
Two years later, the bizarre story of San Macario has taken a script twist. On July 1, a court confirmed the death penalty for one of the two suspected monks, Father Isaiah, 36, after a trial that his relatives, lawyers and human rights groups consider express, without guarantees and with a confession extracted through torture, according to the defense of the convicted person. The death sentence of 35-year-old Father Foulous was, however, commuted to life imprisonment.
“Even though [the murder of Bishop Epifanio] should have been treated as a normal criminal case, from the outset it has been handled by the security services as if it were a political or terrorism case.
So he came with the whole package of violations typical of these cases, ”says Sherif Azer, a human rights defender and researcher for the British NGO Reprieve, who reveals that the case has led to a deep division within the Coptic church.
“In these circumstances, in no way could someone be sentenced to death,” he adds. EL PAÍS has contacted the Ministry of Justice and the country’s Prosecutor’s Office, who did not want to comment.
“There is a suspicion that the bishop was assassinated by followers of a secret order,” explains Azer, who acknowledges that “the whole case is shrouded in mystery.” The human rights defender refers to an enigmatic ultra-conservative group known as the Defenders of the Faith, contrary to figures such as Bishop Epifanio, who celebrated his death.
The investigators’ attention initially focused on Fathers Isaiah and Fachaous because they both had differences with Bishop Epifanio, according to Isaiah’s brother Samuel Saad. However, he insists that the dispute had already been resolved.
After the bloodied body of Epifanio was found, security service agents displaced to the complex arrested the two monks – and four others who were released shortly after – according to a document on the case prepared by Reprieve and the ECRF. Thus, the abuses against Father Isaiah began in the same monastery, where he was interrogated for more than 48 hours.
He was not allowed to use the bathroom, he was beaten and left in his underwear, according to testimony that he himself gave before a judge and that another monk corroborated in writing.
After being arrested, Father Isaiah was transferred to a nearby police station where, according to his lawyer, he remained for a month. In addition, the Egyptian Prosecutor’s Office issued an order to keep him incommunicado – under preventive detention – for the duration of the investigation.
A measure that, according to the lawyers, violated their right to access legal assistance at a key moment in the case, which Azer considers a “black hole” due to the lack of clarity about what happened.
When Father Isaiah finally appeared before the Prosecutor’s Office in August 2018, he did so without a lawyer and accompanied by an agent whom he had denounced for torture, says Azer, who believes that at that time the monk had already been forced to sign a confession of the crime.
The religious was also forced to reenact the bishop’s murder following instructions from the officers after being beaten and electrocuted, according to his testimony. The lawyers point out that, due to the lack of witnesses and other evidence, the trial was based “almost exclusively” on confession and reenactment.
On the other hand, Father Isaiah’s family counted on the fact that the main witness in the case, another monk from the monastery, could have helped prove the version of the main accused. But, in the middle of the process, the monk was transferred from the monastery and, shortly after, was found dead in his cell.
“If he committed suicide or was poisoned, nobody knows, because the forensic report does not determine it,” says Azer. In addition, six other monks who tried to defend Father Isaiah were transferred, according to his brother to EL PAÍS.
During the trial, Father Isaiah’s lawyers warned that the forensic report revealed that Epifanio’s fatal injuries had been caused by a knife or sharp object. But the security services assured that the death occurred with a blunt object, specifically a metal tube. By pointing out the contradiction, the chief coroner assured that it had been a mistake and changed her conclusions, says Azer.
The court’s decision coincides with a sharp increase in executions in Egypt in recent months, so it is feared that the monk is now at risk of imminent death. Its execution could be carried out at any time and without prior notice.
Between 2014 and 2019, between 22 and 67 people a year were executed in the country, according to a tally by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF) which explains that executions in Egypt are always carried out by hanging.
In 2020, the number soared to at least 85, half in October and November alone, in a spike that has alarmed human rights groups. The European Parliament and several UN special rapporteurs have echoed the case.
Isaiah’s lawyers are now criticizing that the torture allegations have not been sufficiently investigated by Egyptian judges, who have neither accepted the monk’s attempts to withdraw his confession, nor the defense’s requests to examine more evidence.
Azer, finally, criticizes that Father Isaiah has also not been granted a full appeal and that, instead, the Court of Cassation used the new prerogatives it has had since 2017 to immediately confirm the sentence. The last hearing lasted just 15 minutes. “That deprived him of an adequate rerun of the trial, which had been customary in Egypt in cases that carry the death penalty,” he laments.