Egypt court sentences Muslim Brotherhood chief to death
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An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 683 alleged Islamists to death, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie. In another session, the same court also reversed 492 of 529 death sentences issued in a March 24 ruling.
The trials have sparked international outrage amid a continuing crackdown against Islamists by Egypt’s military authorities.
The rulings by Judge Saeed Yousef Sabry at a court in the southern province of Minya has been closely followed by international rights groups as well as Egyptians across the country – particularly among the families of the accused. According to reporters in Minya, several female relatives waiting outside the courtroom on Monday fainted on hearing news of the verdict.
On March 24, Justice Sabry sentenced 529 people to death after only one session – a one-hour hearing in which defence lawyers were prevented from presenting arguments, and the prosecution offered no evidence, according to human rights groups.
Under Egyptian law, the court pronounces a death sentence and refers the case to the country’s top Islamic scholar, who plays an advisory role. It then ratifies the sentence in a subsequent hearing.
Reporting from Cairo, FRANCE 24’s Kathryn Stapley explained that Egypt’s grand mufti’s decision is sent to the court, which publicly discloses the ruling. Monday’s reversal of 492 death sentences marked the first time Egypt’s top Islamic scholar had gone against a judge’s initial ruling.
But in another ruling, the court recommended the death sentence for Muslim Brotherhood leader Badie, as well as 682 alleged supporters of the group, on charges of the murder and attempted murder of several policemen during rioting by supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi in Minya in August 2013.
The verdict was the first major ruling against any Brotherhood leader. These death sentences must also be approved by Egypt’s grand mufti.
Monday’s verdicts sparked emotional scenes outside the Minya courthouse. “We’re hearing there’s chaos outside the court at the moment as families try to find out which of the 37 of the 529 are still sentenced to death,” said Stapley shortly after lawyers emerged from the courtroom to relay the verdicts.
The US and UK governments have expressed outrage over the trials. In a statement issued a day after the March 24 verdict, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said it was “shocking even amid Egypt’s deep political repression that a court has sentenced 529 people to death without giving them any meaningful opportunity to defend themselves”.
Ban Ki-moon, the head of the United Nations, expressed deep concern over Monday’s sentencing.
“The Secretary-General is alarmed by the news that another preliminary mass death sentence has been handed down today in Egypt, the first of which was on 24 March,” the statement said.
The White House said it was “deeply troubled by the verdict and urged Egyptian authorities to reverse the decision.
“Today’s verdict, like the one last month, defies even the most basic standards of international justice. The Egyptian government has the responsibility to ensure that every citizen is afforded due process, including the right to a fair trial in which evidence is clearly presented, and access to an attorney,” it said in a statement.
“We urge the Egyptian government to end the use of mass trials, reverse this and previous mass sentences, and ensure that every citizen is afforded due process,” it said.
Court bans April 6 movement
Meanwhile in a separate ruling, a court in Cairo banned the pro-democracy April 6 movement that played a critical role in the 2011 uprisings that led to Hosni Mubarak’s ouster.
The court was ruling on a private lawsuit brought by a lawyer accusing the youth movement of "damaging the image of the state" and of illegal contact with foreigners, according to judicial sources.
The Cairo Court for Urgent Matters that issued Monday's ruling was the same body that banned the Muslim Brotherhood last year.
Activists view the ruling that bans the April 6 movement as part of a government-orchestrated campaign to stifle opposition and dissent.
‘I have no faith in the judiciary’
Days before the Minya court ruled on the cases of hundreds of Islamists, FRANCE 24 met with Ahmed Shabib, a defence lawyer representing 30 of the 529 people sentenced to death.
Shabib was in the Egyptian capital of Cairo to meet some of the families of the defendants.
A visibly tense Mustafa Mohammed, cousin of two of the defendants, listened as Shabib explained the details of the case.
“Neither of them had anything to do with the demonstration or with anything else,” said Mohammed, referring to the August 2013 violence in Minya. “One of them was part of a charitable organization so they think he's Muslim Brotherhood. I'm hopeful the sentence will change. But I have no faith in the judiciary – that's it,” he added, shaking his head.
On August 14, 2013, the Matai police station in Minya was attacked amid mounting rage over the dispersal of pro-Morsi demonstrations in Cairo. One policeman was killed in the clashes.
Shabib, the lawyer, criticized the judge for violating legal procedures and pronouncing sentence after just two hearings.
“To reach a verdict after reading the entire case in 48 hours – this is the crux of the mistake,” said Shabib. “He [Justice Sabry] didn't hear the defence case. He broke the law in not registering the defendants. There are many grounds to appeal.”
The March sentencing sent a chill through opponents of the military-installed regime, which has placed thousands of alleged Islamists on mass trials since Morsi's ouster.
But speaking to FRANCE 24, Ezzat Khamees, a senior Justice Ministry official, denied that the trials were politically motivated and aimed at crushing Egypt’s Islamist opposition.
“There is nothing to do with politics in the judiciary and nothing to do with the judiciary in politics,” said Khamees. “Judges don't work in politics.”
But human rights groups have criticised Egyptian authorities for demonstrating “almost zero tolerance” for any form of dissent by arresting and prosecuting journalists, demonstrators and academics for peacefully expressing their views.
Among the more high profile cases is the trial of three Al Jazeera journalists – including veteran Australian reporter Peter Geste – on charges of disseminating “false information” and belonging to a “terrorist organization”.
At least 1,000 people have been sentenced since December, all in groups of 10 or more. Their prison terms range from six months to life, with two sentenced to death.
Amnesty International says more than 1,400 people have been killed in the police crackdown since the army overthrew Morsi, Egypt's first elected and civilian leader.
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