CAIRO - An Egyptian court has recommended the death sentence to 683 men, including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie. It is the second mass sentencing related to the violent aftermath of President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster last year. A separate court Monday also banned a key secular opposition group in a continuing crackdown on government critics.
Relatives outside the courthouse in Minya, south of Cairo, fainted on hearing the news. Others railed against the sentencing and protested the defendants’ innocence.
The judge’s recommendation is not final. Also Monday, the same court commuted the death sentences in a related case, with 492 of 529 men now facing 25 years to life in prison. The death penalty for 37 men was upheld.
Both cases involved the killing of a policeman in protests and rioting last year that followed the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood figure President Morsi.
Human rights groups and Western governments condemned both trials, hasty affairs in which the defendants’ lawyers say they were not allowed to present their cases.
Speaking outside the courthouse, defense lawyer Mohamed Abdel Wehab said the right to a defense was breached, noting that normally a murder case takes one or two years, but this one finished after the first session.
Critics say Egypt’s judiciary has come increasingly under the sway of the military-backed government and presidential candidate, former defense minister Abdel Fattah el-Sissi.
Veteran diplomat and political analyst Abdallah al Ashaal says Sissi could pursue one of two paths against the Muslim Brotherhood following his widely expected election victory next month.
“Either he is coming to eradicate [the Brotherhood] totally, especially because so many partners are depending on Sissi to do that, inside and outside Egypt," he speculated. " [Or] secondly, they are making that sort of exaggeration so as Sissi comes and becomes the hero, as he attacked the Muslim Brotherhood, he is now giving amnesty for all.”
The idea of a possible future reconciliation between the government and its opponents seemed even more elusive when a separate court Monday banned a key secular, pro-democracy group.
State media say the April 6th Movement, instrumental in the 2011 uprising that deposed long-time President Hosni Mubarak, has tarnished the image of the state. The court ordered a confiscation of the group’s headquarters and declared all its activities illegal. One of the group’s leaders, Ahmed Maher, has already been sentenced to three years in prison for protesting without a permit.
Leftist political activist Wael Khalil says he does not believe the court has any evidence against the April 6th Movement, which has operated legally and openly for years.
“I think it is a political verdict and this is the worrying thing that any judge can rule whatever he feels like without any regard for the law," Khalil said. " Is it a sentence organized by or instigated by the regime? I really do not know. The current legal system is working in such an erratic manner it is really hard to assess what in God’s sake they are doing.”
The Egyptian government has dismissed criticism of the crackdown on opponents, arguing strict measures are needed to ensure stability.
Hundreds, possibly thousands of people, many Morsi supporters, but also security force members have been killed since Morsi’s ouster.
Thousands more are in prison. The former president is also on trial in several cases and if convicted, could face the death penalty.
Egypt’s Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy is visiting the United States in an attempt to improve ties strained by the turmoil and growing anti-Americanism.