CAIRO — As alibis go, this one would seem to be airtight: Your honor, my client was only a year old at the time of the crime.
But it did not stop an Egyptian military court from convicting the accused, a boy now 3½, of killing three people, carrying guns and firebombs, blocking a road with burning tires, and trying to damage government buildings — and sentencing him to life in prison.
The verdict came last week in a mass trial of 107 people suspected of being members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and the charges stemmed from the protests, street clashes and police crackdowns in Egypt after the military overthrow of the elected Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, in 2013. Hundreds of people were killed and thousands were jailed.
After an uproar over the conviction of the boy — Ahmed Mansour Qorani Sharara, who was never arrested — the military said that it was a case of mistaken identity, and that the authorities had actually meant to try a 16-year-old student with the same name. The teenager is on the run, the military added in a post on its official Facebook page.
But that, too, may be a mistake: Before the military statement, a police spokesman, Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim, said in a television interview that the wanted culprit was the toddler’s uncle, a 51-year-old man who has a similar name.
In an interview on Tuesday, Abdel-Karim said the reason for the mix-up remained unknown. “I don’t know why there is a contradiction between the statements,” he said. “I’m not the one responsible for communication with the army.”
A military spokesman, Mohammed Samir, refused to comment.
The case shed a stark light on the often dysfunctional Egyptian judiciary, which since 2013 has sentenced hundreds of people to death or to life in prison in mass trials on what human rights advocacy groups have called trumped-up charges. Ahmed’s conviction was for alleged crimes committed by supporters of Morsi in January 2014.
The army’s announcements about the case of mistaken identity have not included any apology for the distress caused to the child’s family, which was evident in an appearance the boy and his father made on one of Egypt’s most-watched talk shows.
“I swear I don’t want to upset anyone,” the father, Mansour Qorani Sharara, said through sobs as he held the boy and pleaded for help. “They told me they will take my child. No one will take my child.”
The show’s host, Wael el-Ibrashy, favored the ouster of Morsi and is a prominent supporter of the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. But he said despondently, “I don’t know how people are meant to believe in justice after they see this.”
Sharara’s wife, Hemat, called in to the show to say that the police came to the family home looking for her husband and child while Sharara was on the air. Sharara had already spent four months in prison because the authorities mistook him for his son.
Egypt maintains that its judiciary is independent, and the government routinely rejects all criticism of its judges or their verdicts. Even so, human rights groups say Egyptian judges comply with the government’s wishes.
Insulting the judiciary is a crime in Egypt, and many people have been convicted of the charge in recent years.