Egypt's Minya criminal court sentences 529 Brotherhood supporters to death

El-sayed Gamal Eldeen, Monday 24 Mar 2014

In the largest set of death sentences handed to defendants in the modern history of Egypt, court orders capital punishment for 529 supporters of ousted president Morsi over murder of police officer

Mostafa El Attar
Mostafa El Attar, late deputy commander of the Matay police station in Minya (Photo: Courtesy of Meniawy website)

The Upper Egypt court sentenced on Monday 529 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to death on charges of murdering Mostafa El-Attar, the deputy commander of the Matay district police station in Minya, during riots in the aftermath of the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in in August. The court also acquitted 16 other defendants.

Only 147 defendants were present at the hearing, while the rest are on the run and being tried in absentia, according to Aswat Masriya.

According to state news agency MENA, Morsi supporters are accused of killing the police officer and attempting the murder of two others, as well as attacking public property, torching the Matay police station, seizing police weapons and disrupting public order.

The trial began on Saturday with the defence lawyers demanding the recusal of the judges' panel and its replacement with another, "unbiased", panel. Their request was rejected.

On Monday, the court issued its sentence -- the biggest capital punishment verdict in the history of the Egyptian judiciary -- without hearing the defence arguments.

The defendants' papers will be transferred for perusal to the office of the grand mufti, the country's official authority for issuing religious edicts, as Egyptian law stipulates that all death sentences be reviewed by the mufti for ratification.

The court has set 28 April for the final verdict to be passed, once the grand mufti pronounces his final say.

The law allows the verdict to be appealed.

Shocked reactions

According to Haggag El-Hosseiny, Al-Ahram reporter in Minya,  families of the defendants broke down when the verdict was issued, but no violence took place.

Meanwhile, security forces have intensified in Matay, hometown of the majority of the defendants. Numerous families took their children home from schools after rumours of a potential reaction by Muslim Brotherhood loyalists began to circulate.

Lawyer Gamal Eid, director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, described the court's verdict to Ahram Online as "a disaster" and "a scandal" for Egypt.

"Even if they are tried in absentia, you do not sentence 529 defendants to death in three days," Eid exclaimed, adding that the court proceeding was a scandal in its own right.

Nasser Amin, a member of the semi-governmental National Council for Human Rights said on his official Twitter account: "This court ruling will be overturned as soon as the defendants demand a retrial,"  adding that the verdict was unprecedented.

"This verdict is a first in the history of Egypt and will remain in [the nation's record] for good," lawyer Mohamed Zarie, who heads the Arab Penal Reform Organisation rights centre, told Ahram Online.

"We need to see if such numbers [of collective capital punishment] are found during the times of Hitler, [Iraq's] Saddam [Hussein] and Joseph Stalin," he added.

In a sharply contrasting verdict, a Cairo court last week sentenced a police officer to 10 years in prison with labour in connection with the deaths of 37 Islamists in a crammed police van last year. Three other policemen were given one-year suspended sentences.

"Both verdicts are historic," Zarie said.

However, founder of the anti-Morsi Rebel campaign Mahmoud Badr dissented with critics of the ruling on his facebook page. "Whoever does not like the verdict needs to stand in front of the mirror and ask themselves: would that be your reaction if the same verdict was issued against Mubarak and 528 of his regime loyalist?" Badr wrote.

A verdict after months of turbulence

The exceptionally swift trial and harsh sentences highlight the escalation of a sustained crackdown on Islamists since the military's 3 July, 2013 overthrow of Morsi following mass nationwide protests against his turbulent year in power.

On 14 August, Egyptian security forces moved in on two sizeable protest camps by supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in Cairo, leaving hundreds dead and unleashing days of deadly street showdown.

Police stations across Egypt came under attack in the aftermath of the dispersal leaving more than two hundred police officers dead, and dozens of churches – mainly in Upper Egypt's Minya, Sohag and Assiut – torched or damaged.

At least 1,400 people, mainly Islamists, have been killed in street violence since 3 July, according to rights group Amnesty International, and thousands incarcerated.

The deposed leader himself faces a number of trials on a wide array of charges, including inciting the murder of opposition protesters, espionage and a jailbreak during the 2011 uprising.

Most of the Brotherhood's senior leaders are behind bars, with a number standing trial on the same charges as Morsi, some of which carry the death penalty.

Meanwhile, a rising Islamist insurgency in the border Sinai Peninsula has increasingly targeted police and army, killing tens of policemen and army soldiers. 

Deadly bombings and shootings have recently also spilled over into mainland cities, including the Nile Delta and the capital Cairo.

Officially designated a terrorist organisation by the state, Morsi's Brotherhood – the country's largest and oldest Islamist group – is accused by authorities of links to the militant violence rocking the country. The Brotherhood vehemently denies any such links, Insisting that it is a peaceful group.

Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, an Islamist militant group, has claimed responsibility for several attacks on security forces.

In one of the harshest verdicts since the authorities' crackdown on Islamists began last summer, an Egyptian court last week sentenced 17 students to 14 years in jail on charges that include rioting and damaging public property during protests at Cairo's Al-Azhar University in 2013.

A similarly unprecedented verdict last November drew widespread fury when 14 Islamist women, including seven minors, were sentenced to 11 years behind bars over similar charges during a pro-Islamist protest. The sentences were later slashed to one-year suspended terms.

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