An Egyptian judge, in the town of Minya, sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death on Monday 24 March. 16 suspects were acquitted. The court issued its ruling after only two sessions and defence lawyers said they had no chance to present their case. The ruling was the biggest mass death sentence handed out in Egypt’s modern history.
A defence lawyer, Ahmad al-Sharif, said the charges against the group included violence, inciting murder, storming a police station, attacking persons and damaging public and private property. Most of the defendants were detained during clashes after the dispersal of Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo on 13 August 2013.
Since the military backed ousting of former President Muhamed Mursi, the political turmoil has deepened. The military has branded the supporters of Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization. The Muslim Brotherhood claims to be committed to peaceful protest only.
The judge issued his ruling after only two sessions in court. Of the 529 Muslim Brotherhood members sentenced to death, only 123 were present to hear the verdict. The other accused were released, out on bail or on the run, all of them were convicted in absentia.
The defense lawyers said the judge denied justice to the accused, saying the judge was “veering away from all legal norms’. One of the defendants relatives said “When the trial starts on Saturday and it is just a procedural hearing, and the judge doesn't listen to any lawyers or witnesses and doesn't even call the defendants, you are before a group of thugs and not the judiciary”. Critics say that while death sentences are often handed down, few are carried out. They expect the accused to appeal.
The verdict now goes to the supreme religious authority in Egypt, the Grand Mufti for approval or rejection. The final trial session will not be held until 28 April, so there is some time left before the sentence is confirmed. A second group of 700 Muslim Brotherhood members is due to go on trial Tuesday 25 March.
Violence in Egypt
Since the military has ousted former President Mohamed Mursi in July 2013, authorities have cracked down harshly on Islamists, killing hundreds, wounding thousands. The authorities make no distinction between the Muslim Brotherhood and hardcore militant Islamist groups based in the Sinai peninsula. Former President Mursi and other Brotherhood leaders accuse the military of staging a coup to seize power and undermine democracy in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood resisted the ousting of president Mursi, who was also a Muslim Brotherhood member. They say they remain committed to peaceful resistance against, what they call, the military coup in July 2013.
The Muslim Brotherhood spokesman in London, Abdullah el-Haddad, said the sentences showed Egypt was now a dictatorship. He said “It may be just a threat message and there will be appeals to the court and the decision of the court will change, but this is the new Egypt after the coup. This is the new dictatorship that Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is trying to establish".
Presidential elections are scheduled for April. Army chief and minister of defence, Field Marshal Al-Sisi, is widely expected to declare his candidacy, and if he runs, is forecasted to win by a landslide. The latest mass conviction is believed to be part of the relentless crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members in the run-up to the presidential elections.
Sources: Al Arabiya, Al Jazeera I, Al Jazeera II, BBC, Reuters, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Author: Koen Migchelbrink