MINYA, Egypt (AP) — The Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader and more than 680 other people were sentenced to death Monday stemming from last year’s post-coup violence in the latest mass trial that was denounced in the West and by human rights groups as contrary to the rule of law.
In a separate ruling Monday, a court banned the April 6 youth group – one of several that engineered the 2011 uprising against longtime leader Hosni Mubarak that set off nearly three years of unrest. It ordered the confiscation of the group’s offices.
The sentences for the 683 defendants were announced by Judge Said Youssef at a court session in the southern city of Minya that lasted only eight minutes.
The verdicts are not final and are expected to be overturned. Under the law, once the defendants who were tried in absentia turn themselves in – which is all but 63 of the accused – their trials will start over.
The mass trials were linked to riots in which supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi allegedly attacked police stations and churches in retaliation for security forces violently breaking up Cairo sit-ins by Islamists in August that left hundreds dead. The defendants in Monday’s trial are part of a group of nearly 1,000 who were implicated in the deaths of three policemen and a civilian, as well as others who were injured.
Youssef said he was referring the death sentences – which followed convictions for the violence – to the Grand Mufti, Egypt’s top Islamic official. The move is a legal requirement that is usually considered a formality, but it also allows the judge to change his mind.
Youssef also reduced the sentences against 529 defendants from a mass trial at which he presided in March. He upheld the death penalty for only 37 of them – an extraordinarily high number under Egyptian law – and commuted the rest to life imprisonment. The death sentences are being appealed by the prosecutor general.
By contrast, after the trial in the wake of the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, only five people were executed.
Monday’s court action drew international outcry.
Amnesty International said it feared the judiciary is “becoming just another part of the authorities’ repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale.”
Washington called for the rulings to be reversed.
“The United States is deeply concerned by today’s Egyptian court actions related to another mass trial and preliminary death sentences as well as the banning of the April 6 youth movement activities,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
“These court decisions run counter to the most basic democratic principles and foster the instability, extremism, and radicalization that Egypt’s interim government says it seeks to resolve,” she said.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the verdicts “make a mockery of the rule of law.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the verdicts are likely to “undermine prospects for long-term stability,” according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said “the fact that the death sentences can be appealed provides little solace to hundreds of families that will go to sleep tonight facing the very real prospect that their loves ones could be executed without having an opportunity to present a case in court.”
Egypt’s military-backed government has cracked down on Morsi supporters under the banner of a “war against terrorism” while tightening its grip on the Arab world’s most populous nation.
Morsi was removed from power in July by the military after millions demonstrated and demanded he step down. Afterward, his supporters held near daily demonstrations that frequently descended into violence during which hundreds were killed and 16,000 detained. In retaliation, Islamic militant carried out suicide bombing and attacked police and military.
The crackdown has ensnared secular-minded activists who opposed the interim government. In recent months, many of those who opposed Mubarak were imprisoned for defying a new law that that prohibits political gatherings without prior police permits.
Rights groups say they believe Mubarak’s police state has returned.
“The ball is rolling, a frenzied media campaign is backing the security apparatus’ vengeful spirit, police are acting with complete impunity … and judges in this atmosphere have become tools in hands of the police,” said Bahey Eldin Hassan, head of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. “Amid this madness, you can see verdicts like these.”
The highest profile defendant who was convicted and sentenced to death Monday was Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood’s spiritual guide. Like several of its leaders, he had no official post in Morsi’s government but was believed to wield extensive influence.
If his sentence is upheld, he would be the most senior Brotherhood figure to be put to death since one of the group’s leading ideologues, Sayed Qutb, was executed in 1966.
Badie was not at Monday’s hearing in Minya. He was in a Cairo court, where he faces charges of murder and incitement to murder along with 16 other Brotherhood leaders in a case connected to deadly protests at the group’s headquarters in June 2013.
When he heard about the death sentence, Badie voiced defiance, according to Osama Morsi, the son of the ousted president. On his Facebook page, Osama Morsi quoted Badie as saying: “If they execute me a thousand times, I swear in the name of God not to deviate from the truth.”
Defense lawyers in the mass trials boycotted the last month’s session to protest what they said was inadequate time to represent their clients. In the previous mass trial, a judicial official told The Associated Press that the judge didn’t have time to verify the defendants were present.
Ali Kamal, one of the defense lawyers, said Monday’s hearing lasted only eight minutes. Security forces surrounded the courthouse and blocked roads, preventing reporters and many relatives of the defendants from attending.
“This is against the spirit of the law,” Kamal said.
Evidence presented in the trial consisted mostly of video showing a Minya police station being attacked and looted and several government buildings being set ablaze. The defendants faced nearly 14 charges, five of them punishable by death, said a judicial official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to release the information.
Once the Grand Mufti reviews Monday’s ruling, the same court will hold another session June 21 to issue the final verdicts. The ultimate decision is up to the judge.
As the ruling was announced, an outcry erupted outside court among the defendants’ relatives, with many accusing police of fabricating the case. Others denied any link by the defendants to the Muslim Brotherhood. Women fainted, wailed or cried out, “Why? This is unfair!”
A woman who only gave her first name, Samiya, screamed in grief: “My three sons are inside! I have no one but God!”
Mohammed Hassan Shehata said his son, Mahmoud, was only arrested in January, adding, “There is no evidence whatsoever. If my son is guilty, behead him. But if he is innocent, there will be a civil war.”
Gamal Sayyed, a 25-year-old teacher who belongs to the Brotherhood and spoke to The Associated Press from hiding, said he became a fugitive after he was arrested for three months and released pending investigation.
“This ruling is aimed at vilifying the group, creating in public minds images of devils, terrorists, and extremists,” he said. “This trial is crazy … but nothing is going to intimidate the youth in the streets protesting against this bloody coup.”
But some reaction in Cairo appeared to approve of the action as a way to restore security, reflecting a media campaign by the government.
“Even if they sentence a million people to death, so what?” said Sadeek el-Moghazi, a 43-year-old newspaper vendor in the eastern district of Heliopolis. “This is the best ruling in the history of the Egyptian judiciary.”
Michael reported from Cairo. Associated Press writers Mariam Rizk and Laura Dean in Cairo and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.