An EGYPTIAN court has sentenced to death 529 supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in connection with an attack on a police station that killed a policeman, convicting them after only two sessions in a mass trial that raised an outcry from rights activists.
The verdicts are subject to appeal and would likely be overturned, rights lawyers said.
But they said the swiftness and harshness of the rulings on such a large scale deepened concerns that Egypt’s courts have been politicised and that due process is being swept away amid a months-long crackdown on Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters since the military removed the president last summer.
Egyptian authorities are holding a series of mass trials of Morsi supporters. Yesterday’s verdicts by a court in the city of Minya, south of Cairo, were the first such mass trial to issue death sentences.
The court held two sessions. In the first on Saturday, the judge shouted down requests by defence lawyers for more time to review the prosecution’s case for the hundreds of defendants.
Then in yesterday’s session, security forces barred defence lawyers from entering the courtroom on orders from the judge.
“We didn’t have the chance to say a word or to look at more than 3,000 pages of investigation to see what evidence they are talking about,” Khaled el-Koumi, a lawyer representing ten of the defendants, said.
All but around 150 of the defendants in the case were tried in absentia. The judges acquitted 16 of them.
The 545 defendants in the case were charged with murder, attempted murder and stealing government weapons in connection with an attack on a police station in August in the town of Matay. One police officer was killed in the attack.
The violence was part of rioting by Islamists around the country, sparked when security forces stormed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, killing hundreds of people on 14 August.
After the verdict was announced, families of the defendants protested outside the court building in Minya, shouting: “We will not be silenced” and “down with military rule”.
Today another mass trial against Morsi’s supporters opens in a Minya court with 683 suspects facing similar charges.
The defendants in that case include Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie.
Egypt’s military toppled Mr Morsi in July after four days of massive demonstrations by his opponents demanding he step down for abusing power during his year in office.
Since then, the Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters have staged near-daily demonstrations that usually descend into violent street confrontations with security forces.
The military-backed government has arrested some 16,000 people in the ensuing crackdown, including most of the Brotherhood leadership. At the same time, militant bombings, suicide attacks and other assaults – mostly by an al-Qaeda-inspired group – have increased, targeting police and military forces in retaliation for the crackdown.
Some citizens strongly back the crackdown. Amin Futouh, a Cairo resident, praised yesterday’s death sentences. “Those who kill deserve death just as the Quran says. These people have committed murder and they must be killed in return.”
Human Rights Watch executive director for the Middle East Sarah Leah Whitson said: “We are deeply concerned that the dozens of mass trials that are taking place on a daily basis in provinces across Egypt are similarly riddled with due process violations and will also result in outrageous sentences.”