An Egyptian court opened a new mass trial of 683 suspected Islamists charged with murder and inciting violence yesterday, despite international criticism of hundreds of death sentences issued a day earlier by a similar tribunal.
Defence lawyers boycotted the new proceedings, denouncing the verdicts of the previous day. The judge in the city of Minya, south of Cairo, went ahead with the session, hearing witnesses despite the absence of defence lawyers, a violation of the law, the lawyers claimed.
The United Nations human rights office yesterday called the mass death sentences “a breach of international human rights law”.
Egyptian authorities are holding a series of mass trials, with hundreds of defendants each, as part of a months-long crackdown on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood since the military’s overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July. Some 16,000 people have been arrested in the crackdown and hundreds killed.
On Monday, the same court handed down death sentences to 528 defendants after a mass trial which lasted only two sessions and in which defence lawyers were not allowed to present their case.
The defendants were convicted of murder and attempted murder in connection with a mob attack last August on a police station in a town near Minya in which a police officer was killed. The sentences are subject to appeal and even judicial officials involved in the case said they expect them to be overturned.
The justice ministry on Tuesday issued a statement in reaction to the verdicts, underlining that the defendants have a right to appeal the verdicts to the Court of Cassation, which can order a retrial.
The same judge, Said Youssef, is presiding over the new trial that opened yesterday, in which 683 people are charged over a mob attack the same day on another police station in the town of el-Adawa in which two police officers were killed.
The police station attacks were part of a wave of rioting by Morsi supporters, sparked when security forces stormed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August, killing more than 600 protesters.
Only 68 of the 683 defendants were in the dock yesterday.
The rest are being tried in absentia – much like the previous mass trial, in which only 150 of the defendants were in custody.
Among the defendants in yesterday’s trial are the Brotherhood’s leader Mohammed Badie and several other senior figures who are being held in Cairo and were not brought to the court for security reasons.
“As lawyers, we haven’t seen anything like what happened here yesterday in our entire professional lives and we will not see anything like it until our deaths,” said Khaled Fouda, of the Minya lawyers.
The defendants are charged with murder and the attempted murder of five people, including a Christian resident.
They are also charged with belonging to a terrorist group, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, and with financing, aiding and providing weapons and communications to carry out terrorist attacks. Roads around the Minya court building were blocked by cement blocks and metal barricades, manned by security forces and masked special forces.