The Egyptian judiciary faces a fresh wave of international condemnation after an Egyptian judge sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death on Monday.
Legal experts say the sentence, if ever implemented, would be the largest mass execution sentence handed out in Egypt’s – and even the world’s – modern history.
“This is the quickest case and the number sentenced to death is the largest in the history of the judiciary,” said lawyer Nabil Abdel Salam, who defends some Brotherhood leaders including Mursi.
The trial is also said to have violated many legal norms. The judge, in the central Egyptian city of Minya, closed the trial after just two hearings – compared to years-long sessions for ex-President Mubarak and his inner circle who were accused of killing around 900 protesters during the 2011 uprising. Lawyers also claimed the court did not allow the defence teams to complete their cases.
“A second year student in the faculty of law would never issue this verdict. There are a lot of flaws in this verdict. I think maybe an appeal could be successful but nothing is predictable,” said Mohamed Zaree, program manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
The Muslim Brotherhood responded by calling for the “downfall of military rule” on its official website. Mohamed Mahsoub, who served as minister of legal affairs under Mursi, described the court’s decision on his Facebook page as “a ruling calling for the execution of justice”.
Those charged, not all Muslim Brotherhood members, are part of a group of 545 defendants accused of murdering a police officer, inciting the murder of two others, storming a police station, attacking people, damaging public and private property and other acts of violence. Sixteen were acquitted.
Only 123 defendants were present during both Saturday and Monday’s hearings. The rest were either released, out on bail or on the run. Most were arrested in relation to the clashes that erupted in the southern province of Minya following the forced dispersal of two Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo on August 14.
The verdict came as a surprise to the relatives of the convicted who stood outside the courthouse screaming and wailing.
Human rights activists condemned the mass sentencing as a sharp escalation of the crackdown on the more than 80-year-old Islamist organisation, and said it is likely to refuel instability and renew violence in the country.
An angry mob of protesters attacked a police station and set fire to a school near the Minya courthouse in the hours after the verdict, according to state television, though security forces said they had received no reports of unrest.
Furthermore, state television reported the sentences without further comment. Government officials were not immediately available for comment.
However some experts believe the accused men could escape the death penalty as the sentences are likely to be overturned by Egypt’s Grand Mufti, to whom all death penalties are referred. The international consequences of such an event could weigh in the Grand Mufti’s decision.
HA Hellyer, an Egypt expert and fellow at American think-tank the Brookings Institution, said he doubted the sentences would be carried out. “Nevertheless, the very issuing of the sentence itself is quite significant,” he added.
The Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed and declared a terrorist organisation in December 2013 following the ouster of its member, former President Mohamed Mursi, by the military. The movement claims its activism is peaceful.
Belonging to the movement or even taking part in its activities has been considered a terrorist act since then, which has deepened the country’s political turmoil further.
Hundreds of the movement’s members have reportedly been killed or arrested by Egyptian security forces since the military coup against Mursi.
Nonetheless, Egyptian authorities continue to make no distinction between the movement and Islamist hardliners based in the Sinai peninsula who pose a major security challenge to the state despite army offensives against their fighters.
On Tuesday, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, and 682 others will face trial on charges of incitement to kill.