Egypt imposes biggest death sentence in history

By Richard Spencer, Magdy Samaan in Cairo

Relatives reacting after an Egyptian court sentenced to death 529 people. Image / AP
Relatives reacting after an Egyptian court sentenced to death 529 people. Image / AP

Egypt's judges have risked new international outrage by sentencing to death 529 people accused of rioting after a single, two-session trial that ended yesterday.

The judge, in the central Egyptian city of Minya, refused to allow the defence to complete their cases or even admit the defendants' families or lawyers to court for the verdict, they claimed afterwards.

The sentence, if it is carried out, will be the biggest mass execution from a single case in history.

Legal experts say it is likely to be either overturned on appeal - rejected by the Grand Mufti, to whom all death penalties are referred - or commuted by the president, not least because of the international consequences of such an event.

But it brought widespread condemnation from inside the country and abroad. Amnesty International described it as "grotesque".

The case was only one of a series of mass trials of the thousands of people arrested following protests and sit-ins organised by supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the deposed president, after the coup last July. Another case, also in Minya, will begin today to try 683 people, including Mohammed Badie, the supreme guide to Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

Minya province saw some of the worst unrest in the immediate aftermath of events in Cairo on August 14 last year, when the military and police killed hundreds of people while clearing two sit-ins set up in protest against the coup. Islamist mobs responded by attacking churches, Christian-owned businesses and government buildings. They burned police stations, killing several officers.

The 545 defendants in yesterday's case - not all Brotherhood members - were accused en masse of the murder of a policeman in the town of Matay, incitement to murder, damaging public and private property and stealing government weapons. Sixteen were acquitted.

At the first hearing of the case on Saturday, the judge, Said Youssef, rejected a request by the defence for a postponement to allow the large number of papers involved to be scrutinised, the lawyers said.

Only some of the defendants were in court, with others kept in police cells for the hearing. About 400 are not even in custody, having not been arrested or having gone on the run.

At the hearing yesterday, security blockaded the entrance to the court to prevent anyone, including the lawyers, from entering.

"We were not allowed to attend," one lawyer, Ahmed Shabeeb, said. "The verdict was a personal reaction, a stubborn response to lawyers who applied to remove the judge from the case. The sentence violated all legal rules."

The wife of one of the accused, Ahmed Eid, a lawyer, said he was not even present on the streets on August 14 but that a warrant had been issued for his arrest after he appeared on the defence team of protesters at an earlier hearing.

- Daily Telegraph UK

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