CAIRO -- An Egyptian judge sentenced 529 supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi to death Monday in an unprecedented verdict that shocked the nation and dashed any hopes that Egypt’s capricious judicial system would render justice to government opponents.
The case now goes before Egypt’s supreme religious authority, the Grand Mufti, the senior Islamic scholar here, for approval or rejection. It also will be reviewed by an appeals court, with both lawyers and other observers saying they expected the sentence would be overturned, as often happens in Egypt.
That did little, however, to ease the shock that swept across Egypt when the verdict was announced. While police brutality, torture and unfair verdicts are common practice in Egypt, a death sentence is not.
That so many would be sentenced to execution for the death of a single person is unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. According to Death Penalty Worldwide, a website created by Professor Sandra Babcock of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Law School’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, only 709 people had received a death sentence in Egypt between 1980 to 2000. The last execution was in 2011.
“If you don’t die in the streets from weapons, you will die from the judge’s bench,” one of the lawyers, Yasser Zeidan, concluded after Monday’s verdict.
For comparison, a police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison two weeks ago for the deaths of 37 prisoners who suffocated after officers threw tear gas into their police van, which was not designed to hold more than 22 prisoners.
In its daily briefing with reporters, the U.S. State Department said that it was “pretty shocked” by the ruling, which it said “defies logic,” and that U.S. officials would raise the case with Egyptian officials.
“There is no place for politically motivated convictions in a country that is moving toward democracy,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.
The verdict was handed down in Minya, a province in the middle of Egypt that is home to more Christians than any other province. The 529 defendants, who ranged in age from 20 to 40, were charged with killing a police officer, attempting to kill two others and destroying property when a mob stormed a police station last summer, when tensions over Morsi’s ouster were at their height. Much of the violence had been aimed at Christians, whom Morsi’s supporters blamed for contributing to Morsi’s downfall. Hundreds of churches nationwide were attacked, and Minya was particularly devastated by the violence.
Judge Youssef Sabri rendered his verdict, just two days after the case began Saturday, without hearing the evidence against the defendants or allowing the more than 100 lawyers involved in the case to offer a defense.
Lawyers who attended the two court sessions leading up to the verdict said the judge was angry with them for objecting to the level of security at the opening session. One lawyer asked for a new trial, leading the judge to announce Saturday that he would render a verdict on Monday.
Outside the courtroom, the verdict was met with screams by family members, two lawyers for the defendants told McClatchy. The judge did not allow the lawyers to attend Monday’s session after he and the lawyers again bickered Saturday over security. One lawyer asked for a new judge, which drew Sabri’s ire, said Yasser Zeidan, one of the lawyers.
It is unclear how many defendants were in court for the hearing. Those that were not there, released on bail or still at large, were sentenced in absentia. Another 16 defendants were acquitted.
“This is the worst verdict in the history of Egypt,” said Ahmed Shabeeb, another lawyer. “We ourselves don’t know what just happened. We are in shock. We didn’t get a chance to present anything.”
The Foreign Ministry released a statement on the verdict in an effort to mollify the outrage both in Egypt and internationally, and it suggested Monday’s ruling was “only the first verdict in the trial process,” noting that the case will now go to an appeals court.
Regardless, Amnesty International was among several human rights groups that immediately condemned the verdict.
“Today’s mass death sentences handed down by an Egyptian court are a grotesque example of the shortcomings and the selective nature of Egypt’s justice system,” Amnesty International said in a statement.
“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,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, said in the statement.
Another high-profle case Monday provided further evidence of the dysfunction of the Egyptian justice system. At a hearing for three Al Jazeera journalists charged with running a terrorist cell out of a luxury hotel and publishing false news to damage Egypt’s national security, government experts testified they could not recall which news reports they considered false.
Under repeated questioning from the judge, the prosecution’s witnesses showed little familiarity with the case. The national security officer who arrested the three journalists could not remember the names of the defendants, and the technical expert who reviewed confiscated video could not remember which video he deemed harmful to national security.
From a cage where they were held during the hearing, the journalists said the lack of evidence proves their innocence and that they were simply reporting the news, not working as agents of the Muslim Brotherhood or Al Jazeera’s home country, Qatar, which supports the Brotherhood.
“We haven’t seen any evidence in the court that could possibly justify the charges or our imprisonment. We spent three months in prison based on baseless charges,” Australian Peter Greste told reporters during a break in the trial.
But the judge rejected their appeals for bail and scheduled their next court date for March 31. The correspondents have been imprisoned since Dec. 29.
The two court cases ended hopes that emerged Sunday that the government would ease its aggressive crackdown on opponents after a Cairo judge released liberal activist Alaa Abdel Fattah on $1,400 bail on charges he staged an illegal protest last fall. That came as Egyptian President Adly Mansour wrote a letter to families of two of the Al Jazeera correspondents, including Greste’s, promising a speedy trial.
But the hearings Monday indicated those hopes were premature.
“If you don’t remember why they posed a threat to the country, then this is over,” Khalid Abu Bakr, a lawyer for Al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Fadel Fahmy, told the judge after government witnesses could not recall the crimes that led to the journalists’ arrest.
“You have made your point,” the judge responded before denying the journalists bail.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail in Cairo and Hannah Allam in Washington contributed to this report.