Murder mystery inside Egyptian monastery stirs concerns for monk on death row

Egyptian monk Philotheos lies on a stretcher during his trial at the courthouse in Damanhur, Egypt, in February 2019. (AFP/Getty Images)
November 27, 2020 at 10:00 a.m. GMT

CAIRO — It was one of Egypt's most sensational murders: Deep in the desert, a bishop was allegedly bludgeoned with a metal pipe. Suspicion fell on two monks, turning a spotlight on a cloistered world of intrigue within the nation's Coptic Christian priesthood.

Then, something more predictable happened.  Egyptian security agents interrogated the two monks in connection with the 2018 crime, beating and electrocuting them into making confessions, say human rights activists, witnesses and relatives of one of the priests.

Those confessions were used to persuade a court to issue death sentences. In July, an appeals court reduced the sentence of one monk to life in prison but affirmed the other’s death sentence.

 “The confessions were under torture. There was no lawyer present during the interrogations,” said Sherif Azer, a Middle East human rights defender for the British watchdog group Reprieve, which is trying to get the remaining death sentence commuted.

 Death sentences and executions in Egypt are increasing at an unprecedented rate this year, part of a surge that began when President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi came to power in 2014. There have been at least 110 executions in Egypt this year, with 49 taking place during a 10-day period in October, according to human rights activists. It’s the highest recorded rate of executions since 2007, according to Reprieve.

The case of Father Isaiah, the monk on death row, fits a pattern identified by human rights groups.  Death sentences are typically obtained on the basis of confessions obtained under torture and an absence of due process, both violations of international law. And the vast majority of such defendants are sentenced to death in military or terrorism courts in processes that do not meet standards of fair trials, according to lawyers and opponents of capital punishment.

Egypt’s Ministry of Justice and the state prosecutor’s office did not respond to requests for comment sent to the government’s foreign media center in line with protocol. Nor did the State Information Service respond to two separate requests for comment.

The episode began on July 29, 2018 at the 4th-century Monastery of St. Macarius, about 55 miles northwest of Cairo at Wadi El Natrun. In the predawn hours, Bishop Epiphanius, 64, was found dead outside his monastic cell, his skull fractured with what prosecutors would later describe as a blunt object, most likely a metal pipe. Few thought that the abbot had enemies.

 Within days, investigators turned their gaze on Isaiah. He’d had differences with the bishop in the weeks before the killing, and authorities took him into custody. The second monk, Father Faltaous, had disagreed with some of the bishop’s policies and sought to create an independent group outside the monastery, Azer said. That information led authorities to detain Faltaous as well.

 But questions about the merits of the case began to arise. There were no eyewitnesses to the killing, Azer said. The forensic report found that the wounds on the bishop’s head were consistent with cuts with a knife rather than a blunt instrument. In court, one witness said the morgue employees had told him weapon was “a sharp object because the cut was deep,” according to video of the testimony viewed by The Washington Post.

Yet in court, when the monks’ lawyers raised this contradiction, the forensic doctor changed his conclusion, saying a blunt weapon, most likely a pipe, had indeed been used, Azer said.

 Isaiah later testified in court that Egyptian security agents ordered him to strip down to his underwear. Then, he testified, they used a “bad electric device” on him to force him to “reenact” the killing, which was filmed and later produced as “evidence.” He was blindfolded afterward, put in a cell and given only water for six days, he said.

 When a judge saw him, he ordered that Isaiah be taken to a hospital. But Isaiah later said that security agents forced a nurse to state that he was medically fit, according to video of his testimony seen by The Post. Isaiah also said he was accused by his interrogator of having inappropriate sexual relationships and that the bishop had learned of these, creating another motive.

 “I told him if he wants to frame me, then I am a womanizer, but I could never kill,” Isaiah told the court.

 The dispute between Isaiah and the bishop revolved around accusations that the monk was improperly carrying out business deals in the name of the monastery. But the dispute had been settled six months earlier, Azer said, adding that “most witnesses said the dispute wouldn’t have made Isaiah kill the bishop.”

 A key witness, whom Isaiah’s family thought would support his case, was mysteriously transferred to another monastery, Azer said. Two days later, he was found dead in his monastic cell, possibly poisoned. There also were prison inmates who could have testified to Isaiah’s torture, especially an extended period in which he was denied the use of the bathroom as well as the use of electric shocks on him, Azer said. No investigation was carried out into the inmates’ allegations of torture, Azer said.

In June, Reprieve released a statement on behalf of the monks saying that “the only evidence against them are bogus ‘confessions’ extracted through torture.” It added that “the two men have been put through patently unfair trials and there are grave doubts as to their guilt.”

The following month, an Egyptian court affirmed the death sentence against Isaiah and the life sentence for Faltaous. The hearing lasted 15 minutes.

The Coptic Church offered no legal aid. Days after the killing, before he was formally charged, the church defrocked Isaiah without an internal investigation, according to his relatives.

“My brother was arrested after the church abandoned him at a sensitive time,” said Samuel Saad Tawadros, the brother of Isaiah. There are a lot of question marks. Why defrock him at this moment?”

 Human rights activists and the monk’s relatives allege that the church is worried that a prolonged legal proceeding would unearth potentially embarrassing secrets and internal tensions that could damage the church’s image and credibility with millions of its followers.

The church did not respond to written questions for comment.

    Reprieve brought the case to the attention of human rights officials in the European Union and the United Nations. Both institutions are monitoring the monks’ case. But in the current climate, fear is growing that time is running for Isaiah.

“It seems there is a secret deal between the church and the security that this case should be closed as fast as they can,” Azer said. “If the death sentence is carried out, he is done, killed and silenced forever.”

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