An Egyptian judge sentenced 529 men to death on Monday for participating in protests that led to the death of a single police officer during clashes last August which followed the military overthrow of democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi in July.
All of those sentenced are believed to be members or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the political-religious party from which Morsi took most of his support.
The sentences were handed down after just two court sessions. Though experts say there is a likelikood that the sentences could be overturned, critics of the ruling government—now in the hands of the military and its allies—say the ruling is clear evidence that the those who voice dissent against the regime are in danger of losing their lives.
The Guardian's Patrick Kingsley reports on the reactions to the verdict in Cairo:
Waleed Sultan, whose father was among those sentenced to death, said: "Nothing can describe this scandal. This is not a judicial sentence, this is thuggery."
He added: "The session last[ed] for five minutes, [and] during those five minutes none of the lawyers or the defendants were listened to – not even the prosecution. The judge just came in to acquit [the 16] and sentence to death the others."
Mohamed Zaree, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), a prominent rights group, said: "This verdict is a disaster. To rule in the second session of a trial – it means the judge didn't hear the defence or look at the evidence. Even someone from the second grade of the law faculty would never have issued this verdict – it goes against the basic principles of criminology."
The same court will try 683 more Brotherhood supporters on Tuesday – including the leader of the group, Mohamed Badie, and the head of its political wing, Saad al-Katatny.
The defendants are among at least 16,000 political dissidents arrested since the overthrow of Morsi last July, according to police figures. Some rights groups say the real figure may be as high as 23,000, and many of those imprisoned have been tortured by the authorities.
The New York Times adds:
The verdict on Monday underscored the continuing determination of at least a part of the Egyptian judicial system to treat support for the ousted president as treason. In December, the government formally outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backed Mr. Morsi and dominated Egypt’s first free elections, declaring it a terrorist group and subjecting any of its members or supporters to heavy penalties. The government has also issued another law criminalizing participation in unauthorized street demonstrations, with jail sentences for organizers.
The state newspaper Al Ahram reported that the verdict came at the start of the second session of the trial. The paper said that the 529 defendants, described by state media as Muslim Brotherhood members, were convicted of killing one police officer, of the attempted killing of a second, and of participating in rioting that destroyed a police station. Sixteen defendants were acquitted, the newspaper said.
The conviction on Monday followed the release on bail the previous day of a celebrated activist and blogger, Alaa Abd el-Fattah, who had been jailed for three months on charges of organizing an unauthorized protest in Cairo. He continues to await trial and a possible jail sentence.