MINYA, Egypt– An Egyptian court this week sentenced 529 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the recently outlawed Islamist movement, to death in a trial that underscored the country’s sharp turn towards authoritarianism since the coup that ousted President Mohammad Morsi, an Islamist backed by the Brotherhood, last summer. The death sentences, the largest in the country’s history, are seen as an effort by the military to neuter the Islamist group ahead of presidential elections that Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, the Armed Forces chief who spearheaded the coup that ousted Morsi, is expected to win.
The March 24 court verdict against the Islamist defendants, who were convicted of charges including murdering a police commander and launching attacks on people and property, was issued after only two trial sessions. The defendants’ lawyers complained that they were not given an opportunity to present their case during the trial, which took only three days to complete. A first session was held on March 22 and the mass death sentences were handed down at the second hearing two days later.
A final session is scheduled for April 28, and the verdict still must be approved by Egypt’s supreme Islamic cleric, known as the Grand Mufti. About 147 of those convicted were in the courtroom for the trial, while the other defendants were tried in absentia. Out of those convicted, 16 defendants were also acquitted.
The charges all stem from clashes that erupted in Minya, a city south of the capital, after security forces dismantled two protest camps that Morsi supporters erected in Cairo following the July 3, 2013 coup that ousted the Islamist president. The violent dispersals of the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque and al-Nahda Square protest camps on August 14, 2013 killed hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters, and precipitated clashes across Egypt between Brotherhood supporters and security forces, including in Minya, a bastion of support for the Islamist group.
In Minya, the deputy commander of the Matay police district was killed in the violence that erupted following the destruction of the protest camps in Cairo and some of those convicted Monday had been charged in the police commander’s death.
In Washington, D.C., Marie Harf, the deputy U.S. State Department spokeswoman, criticized the breakneck speed of the trial, saying it, “sort of defies logic. Obviously the defendants can appeal, but it simply does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony consistent with international standards could be accomplished with over 529 defendants in a two-day trial.”
Egypt has taken a sharp turn towards authoritarianism since the July 3, 2013 popularly-backed coup that toppled Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically-elected president. In late November 2013, Egypt’s military-backed government promulgated a new law imposing draconian restrictions on demonstrations, including giving the Interior Ministry, an institution known for its aversion to civil liberties, blanket authority to ban, postpone or move protests. Then, in January, Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a new constitution that formally enshrines many of the powers and privileges that Egypt’s military has long enjoyed.
The new charter, which was drafted by a constituent assembly whose composition the military helped to shape, stipulates that the defense minister must be an active member of the armed forces and creates a legal framework for trying civilians in military courts. The document also grants the Armed Forces, already the country’s most powerful institution, the authority to appoint the defense minister for eight years after the charter is ratified.
In parallel to adoption of a military-friendly constitution and the passage of a draconian law regulating protests, Egypt’s military backed government has unleashed a brutal crackdown targeting the Brotherhood, which dominated politics during the period of military rule after longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was overthrown February 2011. In the 16 months of military rule after Mubarak was toppled, the Islamist group won the presidency as well as control of both the upper and lower houses of country’s parliament, making it the most powerful political force in post-Mubarak Egypt.
In September 2013, an Egyptian court banned the Brotherhood and, “its non-governmental organization and all the activities that it participates in and any organization derived from it.” A ruling by a separate court in November upheld the September 2013 decision outlawing the Brotherhood and also ordered the Islamist group’s assets seized. In December, Egypt’s government designated the Brotherhood, a Sunni Islamist movement founded in Egypt in 1928, as a terrorist organization.