CAIRO – Egypt's Justice Minister on Wednesday rebuffed international criticism of a mass trial this week in which some 680 defendants were sentenced to death, saying the judiciary is not a tool of executive authority and that rulings can be overturned upon appeal.
The death sentences on Monday sparked an international outcry. While they were not final and are very likely to be overturned on appeal, the judge was criticized for not giving enough time for defendants and lawyers to present their case and after holding only one session last month.
"Egyptian judges are independent and there is no control over them," Nayer Osman told reporters. "No one in the state is directing the judge — neither a minister, nor an official."
After a death penalty ruling, the prosecutor must appeal along with the defendant in line with normal judicial process, he added. "The judge is a human being. He can make a mistake like any other human being," he said.
Osman added that commenting on the verdicts "is not acceptable by all means ... we don't accept any intervention by any means."
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, leaving hundreds dead.
On Tuesday, a key U.S. lawmaker said that he wouldn't allow the release of any U.S. aid to Egypt until the government proves it is committed to the rule of law. The same day, Secretary of State John Kerry said after meeting with his Egyptian counterpart said that the mass death sentences are troubling and call into question the rule of law.
On Wednesday, U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and again voiced U.S. concerns over the mass trials and death sentences, the White House said.
Among those sentenced to death is the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader Mohammed Badie who also faces several other separate trials.
On Wednesday, Badie along with an ultraconservative Salafi preacher Safwat Hegazy and 19 others were sentenced to one year in prison for "insulting the court" in a separate case either by turning their back to the room or speaking in inappropriate manner, court officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
The 21 were sentenced while standing trial with Morsi and 130 others, the majority of whom are being tried in absentia on charges of orchestrating prison breaks during the 2011 uprising which led to the ouster of Morsi's predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.
Hegazy was a key speaker at the main pro-Morsi sit-in dispersed by security forces last August. He had told protesters to hold their ground and promised to reverse the military's overthrow of Morsi.
Thousands of members of the now-illegal Brotherhood and supporters of the ousted president are in prison awaiting trial, along with liberal democracy activists who have spoken out against the military-backed government.
New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned another recent Egyptian court decision: a ban on the April 6 youth organization issued two days ago. The group said it was an "escalation in the government's campaign against all peaceful opposition."
April 6 is an influential group, one of several that engineered the anti-Mubarak uprising. The court ordered the takeover of the group's offices.
"Banning political dissent won't make it go away," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.