CAIRO – A court in Egypt sentenced to death 529 supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi on charges of murdering a policeman and attacking police, convicting them after only two sessions in one of the largest mass trials in the country in decades.
The verdicts are subject to appeal and would likely be overturned, rights lawyers said. But they said the swiftness and harshness of the rulings on such a large scale underlined the extent to which Egypt's courts have been politicized and due process has been ignored amid a sweeping crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters since the military removed the president last summer.
The first of the trial's two sessions in a court in the city of Minya, south of Cairo, saw furious arguments as the judge angrily rejected requests by defense lawyers for more time to let them review the trial documents for the hundreds of defendants. In Monday's session when the verdicts and sentences were read, security forces barred defense lawyers from attending, one of the lawyers, Yasser Zidan, told The Associated Press.
"This is way over the top and unacceptable," said attorney Mohammed Zarie, who heads a rights center in Cairo. "It turns the judiciary in Egypt from a tool for achieving justice to an instrument for taking revenge."
"This verdict could be a precedent both in the history of Egyptian courts and perhaps, tribunals elsewhere in the world," he added.
All but around 150 of the defendants in the case were tried in absentia by the court in the city of Minya, south of Cairo. The judges acquitted 16 defendants.
Egypt has seen a string of mass trials of Morsi supporters in recent weeks, usually over charges of violence in connection to Islamist protests against Morsi's removal and the crackdown.
The 545 defendants in the case were charged with murder, attempted murder and stealing government weapons in connection with an attack on a police station in August in the town of Matay in Minya province. One police officer was killed in the attack. The violence was part of rioting around the country sparked when security forces stormed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo, killing hundreds of people on Aug. 14.
During the first session on Saturday, defense lawyer Khaled el-Koumi said that he and other lawyers asked the presiding judge, Said Youssef, to postpone the case to give them time to review the hundreds of documents in the case, but the request was declined.
When another lawyer made a request, the judge interrupted and refused to recognize it. When the lawyers protested, Youssef shouted that they would not dictate what he should do and ordered court security to step in between him and the lawyers.
A security official in the courtroom said the defendants and the lawyers disrupted the proceedings by chanting against the judge: "God is our only refuge!" He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
"We didn't have the chance to say a word, to look at more than 3,000 pages of investigation and to see what evidence they are talking about," el-Koumi, who was representing 10 of the defendants, told The Associated Press.
A senior Brotherhood figure, Ibrahim Moneir, denounced the verdicts, warning that abuses of justice will fuel a backlash against the military-backed government that replaced Morsi.
"Now the coup is hanging itself by these void measures," he said, speaking to the Qatari-based Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr TV station.
He said he believed the verdicts were timed to send a message to an Arab League summit that begins Tuesday in Kuwait, where Egypt is pressing other Arab governments to ban the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group.
On Tuesday, another mass trial against Morsi's supporters opens in a Minya court with 683 suspects facing similar charges. The defendants in that case include Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, who also faces multiple other trials, and senior members of the group from Minya province.
Egypt's military toppled Morsi in July after four days of massive demonstrations by his opponents demanding he step down for abusing power during his year in office. Since then, Morsi's Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters have staged near-daily demonstrations that usually descend into violent street confrontations with security forces.
The military-backed government has arrested some 16,000 people in the ensuing crackdown, including most of the Brotherhood leadership.
At the same time, militant bombings, suicide attacks and other assaults -- mostly by an Al Qaeda-inspired group -- have increased, targeting police and military forces in retaliation for the crackdown. The authorities have blamed the Brotherhood for the violence, branding it a terrorist organization and confiscating its assets. The group has denied any links to the attacks and has denounced the violence.
Imad El-Anis, an expert in Middle Eastern politics at Nottingham Trent University, said Monday's verdicts were "far from meeting minimum international standards for judicial processes of this kind."
But he said Egyptian authorities are unlikely to heed any international criticism of the verdicts "and are likely to push on with further rapid mass trials."