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Second mass death-sentencing in Egypt sparks international outcry

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In the latest government crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, an Egyptian court in Minya has sentenced 683 defendants to death. The new verdict, issued by the same court, surpasses last month’s sentencing of 529 defendants to death, becoming the largest mass-death sentencing in living memory. The judge will confirm the verdict on June 21.

In both cases, the defendants are accused of association with the Muslim Brotherhood and involvement in the death of two police officers on 14 August 2013. The 529 defendants tried in March were accused of lynching a policeman in the town of Matay, in Minya province. In Monday’s trial, 683 others – including Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie – are said to have killed another officer in the nearby town of Adwa.

Since the overthrow of Morsi, and particularly since the clearings of pro-Morsi protest camps at Raba’a and el Nahda squares on 14 August of last year, at least 16,000 people have been arrested and more than 2,500 killed since the ousting of Morsi.

Defence lawyers boycotted the last two brief sessions of the hearing, branding it “farcical” after the mass death sentencing. As in the previous case, the trial was fraught with irregularities. The majority of the defendants were tried in absentia; only 73 are in custody, and the others have a right to a retrial if they hand themselves in. The hearing lasted only 10 minutes. Earlier this month, the judge commuted 492 of the 529 death sentences to life in prison. Many family members claimed that their relatives had been unjustly convicted or put on trial, in some cases because of personal disputes with police officers. In many cases, the defendants have evidence proving they were not involved, and in fact, not in the province at the time of the events.

The court, presided over by judge Said Youssef Sabry, has sparked international outcry with its sentencings. The defence lawyers claim that Judge Sabry could not have had time to read the thousands of pages of court documents relating to the case. Families have alleged that some defendants are not even mentioned in the documents.

The United States urged Egypt to reverse the court decision. A statement from the White House read, “Today’s verdict, like the one last month, defies even the most basic standards of international justice. This verdict cannot be reconciled with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was “alarmed” by the death sentences and feared it could impact the entire region. Ban’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, said, “Verdicts that clearly appear not to meet basic fair trial standards, particularly those which impose the death penalty, are likely to undermine prospects for long-term stability.” The UN chief will discuss his concerns with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy later this week.

Amnesty International also condemned the ruling, saying, “Egypt’s judiciary risks becoming just another part of the authorities’ repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale.”

However, the government has defended the rulings, insisting that the case was carefully studied, and the verdict was “subject to appeal. In the media, many see the sentences as a fitting penalty to the Muslim Brotherhood, who are blamed for an increase in militancy and violence in Egypt since August. A newspaper commentator said, “The outrage over the conviction of 529 terrorists is in itself an outrage.”

Under Egyptian law, death sentences are referred to the country’s Grand Mufti (top Islamic scholar) for an advisory opinion before being ratified. The court may choose to commute the sentences, which can later be challenged at an appeals court.

Meanwhile, a separate court in Cairo has banned the April 6 Movement, a youth movement that was in large part responsible for  spearheading the 2011 revolt which toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak. The group was accused of defaming Egypt and colluding with foreign parties. At the UN, Ban Ki-moon expressed concern at that decision and the jailing of three “emblematic figures” of the uprising, including two founders of the youth movement.

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