Egypt: human rights groups rally against mass death sentences

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Human rights groups have responded with shock after an Egyptian court sentenced 529 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to death on Monday, in what is believed to be the largest bloc of capital punishment sentences in recent history.

Criticism has continued, after the US State Department called the sentences "unconscionable" and a joint statement by Egyptian political groups claimed the authorities had "lost their minds."

UN officials also said the ruling ran against international law.

The verdict, reached after just two hearings in as many days, is the latest in a comprehensive and bloody crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood which has left thousands dead and at least 16,000 languishing in jail, according to Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights figures.



Monday’s mass trial dealt with violence that gripped Minya governorate after the overthrow of former President Mohamed Morsi in July and the dispersals of the Rabaa al-Adaweya and Nahda sit-ins on 14 August.

Churches and Christians were attacked in a wave of spiralling sectarian violence, while violent clashes with security forces erupted across the governorate. Hundreds were arrested.

On Monday, 545 defendants faced charges related to the murder of a police officer and attempted murder of another two.

They were also accused of storming a police station, stealing weapons and freeing inmates. Seventeen others were reportedly acquitted.

Defense lawyers complained of several irregularities, including being refused more time to review the evidence.

Reports of the numbers of those sentenced varied, with state media and officials citing 529. Lawyers and other media reported 528.

The government defended the ruling Tuesday, at the same time landing out at the growing condemnation.

"Comments on judicial verdicts are unacceptable, be they from external or internal parties, as they represent a serious transgression against the independence of the judiciary," a Justice Ministry statement warned. The court had acted properly, it added.

Defendants will still be able to appeal the sentence and Egypt’s grand mufti must also ratify the final verdict, however criticism has only escalated.


"Injustice writ large"

"Imposing the death penalty on 529 defendants after a two-day trial would be unconscionable," State Department spokesman Marie Harf said Tuesday.

Amnesty International also called Monday’s ruling "grotesque" in a statement issued shortly after the hearing.

“This is injustice writ large and these death sentences must be quashed. Imposing death sentences of this magnitude in a single case makes Egypt surpass most other countries’ use of capital punishment in a year,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.

"This is the largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we’ve seen in recent years, not just in Egypt but anywhere in the world."

According to Amnesty statistics published in The Guardian last year, Egypt sentenced a total of 704 people to death between 2007 and 2012, while 12 people were reportedly executed in the same period.

The last known execution took place in October 2011.

Many expect the original sentence to be relaxed, but some say Monday’s hearing reveals the extent of Egypt’s crackdown and its effect on state institutions.

Stories of torture and abuse at the hands of the police are now commonplace, and yet almost no member of Egypt’s security forces has been charged.

Lieutenant Colonel Amr Farouk is currently the only police officer to be handed jail time for post-Morsi violence, sentenced for his role in the deaths of 37 men near Abu Zaabal prison, killed while in police custody, in August.