An Egyptian court has sentenced 528 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to death, in the largest mass death sentence handed down in recent history, anywhere in the world.
The sentence is the latest blow in a crackdown which has sent the Brotherhood reeling since the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi – a prominent member of the organisation – in July last year.
Defence lawyers at the court in Minya, south of the capital, Cairo, claimed they were neither given time to review the evidence against their clients, nor cross-examine witnesses for the prosecution.
One of those sentenced to death, accused of a violent attack on a police station which left one officer dead, was Assem Mohamed Ahmed, a 34-year-old man paralysed on one side of his body, according to his brother Ahmed Mohammed, a mechanic.
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Assem is one of more than 400 of the defendants who are not currently in detention. Another is Sayyef Gamal, 20, a medical student at Minya University, who said that he could not have participated in the attack on the police station in Minya, Upper Egypt, because at the time it occurred, in mid-August last year, he was fleeing police attacking a sit-in in Cairo, several hundred miles away.
That sit-in, calling for the return of Morsi, was cleared on 14 August, leading to the deaths of more than 900 people. The violence of the clearing sparked attacks on both police and Christians in Minya and elsewhere, including the attack which Sayyef is now accused of participating in.
Sayyef now moves discreetly between safe houses, watching the news, and hoping for a reversal of the verdict at a retrial.
A senior Brotherhood figure, Ibrahim Moneir, denounced the verdicts, warning that abuses of justice will fuel a backlash against the military-backed government that replaced Morsi.
“Now the coup is hanging itself by these void measures,” he said, speaking to the Qatari-based Al Jazeera television channel.
The sentence was being viewed as exceptionally harsh, even in Egypt’s polarised climate. But some lawyers support the judge’s decision.
“It’s good that terrorists be sentenced to death,” said Gamil Dorgham, a Cairo-based lawyer.
The Muslim Brotherhood was designated a terrorist organisation in December, although the government has produced no evidence to support its designation.
“This decision is not a final one, but if it were final, it’s all right. You have to know we are fighting terrorism. We have to deter them,” Mr Dorgham said.
Nathan Brown, a professor at the George Washington University in Washington, and an expert on Egypt’s judiciary system, says the verdict is likely to be lessened.
“If it were implemented in its current form, that would shock me even more than the verdict itself,” he said.
Despite the outlandish harshness and volume of the verdicts, several features of the case have become typical of the widening crackdown on Morsi’s Brotherhood and the secular opposition.
At least 16,000 people have been arrested since July, according to state officials, and thousands have been tortured, according to the monitoring group Nation Without Torture.
The accused and their lawyers also routinely complained of judicial abuses, according to Heba Wanis, of another monitoring group, Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.Amnesty International said that it was the largest simultaneous mass death sentence handed down in memory, anywhere in the world.
“There is no case that we are aware of that is of this magnitude,” said Jan Wetzel, a death penalty researcher at Amnesty.
“It’s grotesque, using death sentences like small change.”
Maha Sayyed, 30, a teacher, said she believes her husband Ahmed Eid, a lawyer, was detained in an act of revenge after he secured the release of four of his clients accused of participating in Brotherhood-related activities.
“We want to talk about that case with those four guys,” one security officer said to him, according to his wife, before arranging the meeting that led to his arrest.
Now he is one of the more than 100 people who are in custody, accused over the police station attack.
The 528 sentenced on Monday were among more than 1,200 Muslim Brotherhood supporters accused of participating in the violence in Minya. Many of the remainder are due in court today, including Mohamed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood – its most senior figure.
Egypt’s judiciary repeatedly clashed with Mohamed Morsi during his year in power, and was one of the pillars of the alliance which deposed him on 3 July, replacing him with the then head of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
The Brotherhood has accused judges of aiding the crackdown through harsh and politicised verdicts.
“We have become used to decisions like this from the courts,” said Ahmed Shaheeb, a lawyer for 25 of the defendants.
Mr Shaheeb’s own brother Hossam fled the country after being accused in the same case.
Professor Brown believes, however that most verdicts are arrived at without interference from the state, but that deep problems nonetheless skew the system.
“First, the security apparatus seems unscrupulous and that is where evidence comes from,” he said.
“Second, large parts of the judiciary seem to have been spooked by the Morsi regime, sometimes for good reason and sometimes not. That seems to have clouded the judgement of many.
“And third, the judiciary has a world view that is very respectful of law but also one that can be less than liberal, especially when the law is less than liberal or there is a perceived threat to judges’ own self-image as pillars of order and justice.”