CAIRO - Ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and a number of top leaders of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group were given death sentences in one of several cases against them. The cases were referred to Egypt's grand mufti, the country's top religious leader, to either approve or commute the sentences.
Cairo's criminal court issued death sentences to ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi and 105 co-defendants Saturday, in a case known as the Wadi Natroun jailbreak. Morsi and other prisoners fled the Wadi Natroun prison, allegedly with help from outside groups, during the January 2011 uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi was seen on Qatari-owned al-Jazeera TV (Arabic), speaking on a borrowed satellite phone during the early days of the 2011 uprising, telling the TV service that he had broken out of prison with a number of other defendants.
The Cairo court also issued a separate verdict against several top Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including the group's deputy guide Khairat Shater and Brotherhood figure Mohamed Baltagy, for conspiring with the Hamas and Hezbollah groups in organizing the prison break.
Egyptian media reported that three judges were killed in the northern Sinai town of El Arish Saturday, after the minibus in which they were riding came under fire. The attack took place immediately after the verdict against former president Morsi and his co-defendants.
Amateur video showed Morsi smiling at onlookers from behind a protective glass cage, after the verdict was announced. The video also showed other top Muslim Brotherhood leaders making a four-fingered salute to symbolize the violent break-up of a protest camp in northern Cairo in August 2013, which left over 600 people dead.
The verdicts announced Saturday will be reviewed by Egypt's grand mufti, the country's top Islamic cleric, and his decision will be announced on June 2. That decision may also be appealed, setting the stage for a lengthy review process before any final verdict is reached.
A lawyer for Morsi said he would appeal his client's death sentence.
Maha Azzam, a Brotherhood leader-in-exile, wrote on the group's website that the death sentence against Morsi was handed down in “a farcical trial that has no legitimacy.” Amnesty International also condemned the series of trials, calling them “a charade.”
Check and balances
Said Sadek, a well-known Egyptian political sociologist, tells VOA that Saturday's verdicts are only preliminary and the Egyptian judicial system has a long system of checks and balances before coming up with any final decision.
"All court verdicts by criminal courts are preliminary and there are appeals, automatic appeals by the defendant," he said. "So there would be an appeal on the side of Morsi and the other defendants. So, the case is not over yet. It will take a long time, but a court verdict is a court verdict and you'd have to go through the legal process to overturn it.”
Sadek went on to argue that Egypt's President, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi has the authority to commute the sentences, but that he doubted the president would intervene at this stage in the judicial process.
Paul Sullivan, who teaches at Georgetown University, argues that the political tug-of-war between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian government was poisoning the climate in the country and that it was “time for the Brotherhood to back down ... and allow Egypt to move forward towards peace and prosperity.”
Despite the long and uncertain judicial process, those defendants condemned to death, including Mr. Morsi, will now have to wear red prison garb, to symbolize their death-row status.