MINYA, Egypt – An Egyptian court sentenced Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 682 other alleged Islamists to death on Monday, a lawyer and prosecutor said, after two brief sessions the defence partly boycotted.
The same court in the southern province of Minya also reversed 492 of 529 death sentences it passed in March, commuting most of those to life in prison. The court, presided over by judge Said Youssef Sabry, had sparked an international outcry with its initial sentencing last month amid an extensive crackdown on supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
The crackdown has reached secular leaning dissidents who supported Morsi's overthrow but have since turned on the army-installed regime. In Cairo, a court banned the April 6 youth movement that spearheaded the 2011 revolt against strongman Hosni Mubarak, following a complaint accusing it of defaming Egypt and colluding with foreign parties.
In Minya, the judge is to confirm the death sentences on June 21. Under Egyptian law, death sentences are referred to the top Islamic scholar for an advisory opinion before being ratified. A court may choose to commute the sentences, which can later be challenged at an appeals court.
Of the 683 sentenced on Monday, only about 50 are in custody. The others have a right to a retrial if they hand themselves in. Monday's hearing lasted just 10 minutes, said Khaled Elkomy, a defence lawyer who was in court. The verdict was the first against Badie, spiritual head of Muslim Brotherhood, in the several trials he faces on various charges along with Morsi himself and other Brotherhood leaders.
Several female relatives waiting outside the courtroom fainted on hearing news of the verdict. "Where is the justice?" others chanted. Some said family members had been unjustly convicted or put on trial. "My son does not even pray, he does not even know where the mosque is," said one woman, whose son was among the 529 sentenced to death in March.
Karima Fadl, the mother of a man whose death sentence was commuted, said: "My son Khaled received a life sentence. It is not better than a death sentence. It is still an injustice. He did nothing wrong." Those sentenced on Monday were accused of involvement in the murder and attempted murder of policemen in Minya province on August 14, the day police killed hundreds of Morsi supporters in clashes in Cairo.
Defence lawyers boycotted the last session, branding it farcical after the mass death sentencing which the United Nations denounced as a breach of international human rights law. Lawyer Elkomy claims 60 percent of the 529 defendants, including teachers and some doctors, have evidence that proves they were not present the day they were accused of attacking the Matay police station in Minya, said the Avaaz human rights group.
The government has defended the court's handling of the first mass death sentences, insisting the sentences were passed only "after careful study" and were subject to appeal. Prosecutor Abdel Rahim Abdel Malek defended the charges against the 529. "We have strong evidence that incriminates all those sentenced to death," he told AFP.