Over a dozen Egyptian rights groups have condemned a mass life imprisonment sentence passed Wednesday against 230 non-Islamist activists, saying the verdict mirrors a "gravely flawed" justice system.
The organisations called upon the country's Supreme Judicial Council to interfere to put a stop to what it described as "a series of continuous collapse of (the) justice system," demanding that the judiciary distance itself from "political conflict."
A Cairo court on Wednesday sentenced to life 230 secular activists, including the leading figure Ahmed Douma, from the 2011 pro-democracy uprising that ousted long-time autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The court also jailed 39 juveniles for 10 years.
In a joint statement on Thursday, 17 local rights watchdogs condemned the "harsh" verdict and slammed the legal impunity of police and army personnel who they said were responsible for the killing of at least 17 people during the clashes over which the defendants in the case were convicted.
Such unfair verdicts "cast the Egyptian judiciary as a rival--rather than a judge--unreasonably passing the severest penalties and abolishing the least guarantees of justice," the statement read.
The groups--which include the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, Arab Network for Human Rights Information and Al-Nadeem Centre--denounced mass jail and death sentences previously passed against Islamists, saying that they consolidate acts of vengeance and political violence, solely to the benefit of extremists.
They also criticised the bench for referring the defence lawyers in the case to prosecution and barring them from attending the hearings.
Wednesday's verdict, which can be appealed, came as the defendants were convicted over rioting, assaulting security forces and setting alight government buildings during clashes with security forces near Cairo's Tahrir Square in December 2011.
It is the harshest to be delivered against non-Islamist activists against the backdrop of a sustained state crackdown on supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
All defendants except for Douma were tried in absentia, as the others were released. They were also ordered to pay a combined fine of LE 17 million ($2.2 million).
A life-in-prison verdict carries a sentence of 25 years in jail according to the Egyptian penal code.
On Monday, the same judge confirmed death sentences against 183 men convicted of killing 13 policemen in a town near Cairo, a ruling that was slammed by international rights groups.
Hundreds of other Islamists were sentenced to death last year in rulings that stirred criticism from global rights groups and western governments.