Egypt court to rule on controversial mass trial of Islamists
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An Egyptian court on Monday is set to pass final judgment on 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters sentenced to death and issue a verdict on another batch of nearly 700 people, including the leader of the banned Islamist group.
The trials have sparked international outrage amid a continuing crackdown against Islamists by Egypt’s military authorities.
Judge Saeed Yousef Sabry is expected to rule on a preliminary death sentence issued against 529 defendants on March 24, just two days after the mass trial began.
The trial last month had 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.
A second batch of 683 people – including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie – face charges of the murder and attempted murder of several policemen during rioting by supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi in the southern province of Minya in August 2013.
Monday’s session could mark the first major verdict against any Brotherhood leader.
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”.
‘I have no faith in the judiciary’
Days before the trial, 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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