529 Morsi backers condemned

Sentences for killing a police officer during tensions over president’s ouster shock Egypt

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CAIRO -- An Egyptian judge sentenced 529 supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi to death Monday in an unprecedented verdict that shocked the nation and dashed any hopes that Egypt's capricious judicial system would render justice to government opponents.

Judge Youssef Sabri rendered his verdict, just two days after the case began Saturday, without hearing the evidence against the defendants or allowing the more than 100 lawyers involved in the case to offer a defense.

The case now goes before Egypt's supreme religious authority, the Grand Mufti, the senior Islamic scholar, for approval or rejection. It also will be reviewed by an appeals court, with both lawyers and other observers saying they expected the sentence would be overturned, as often happens in Egypt.

That did little, however, to ease the shock that swept across Egypt when the verdict was announced. While police brutality, torture and unfair verdicts are common practice in Egypt, a death sentence is not.

That so many would be sentenced to execution for the death of a single person is unprecedented in modern Egyptian history. According to Death Penalty Worldwide, a website created by Sandra Babcock of the Center for International Human Rights at Northwestern Law School's Bluhm Legal Clinic, only 709 people had received a death sentence in Egypt between 1980 to 2000. The last execution was in 2011.

For comparison, a police officer was sentenced to 10 years in prison two weeks ago for the deaths of 37 prisoners who suffocated after officers threw tear gas into their police van, which was not designed to hold more than 22 prisoners.

In its daily briefing with reporters, the U.S. State Department said it was "pretty shocked" by the ruling, which it said "defies logic," and that U.S. officials would raise the case with Egyptian officials.

"There is no place for politically motivated convictions in a country that is moving toward democracy," State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters.

The verdict was handed down in Minya, a province in the middle of Egypt that is home to more Christians than any other province. The 529 defendants, who ranged in age from 20 to 40, were charged with killing a police officer, attempting to kill two others and destroying property when a mob stormed a police station last summer, when tensions over Mr. Morsi's ouster were at their height. Much of the violence had been aimed at Christians, whom Mr. Morsi's supporters blamed for contributing to his downfall. Hundreds of churches nationwide were attacked, and Minya was particularly devastated by the violence.

Lawyers who attended the two court sessions leading up to the verdict said the judge was angry with them for objecting to the level of security at the opening session. One lawyer asked for a new trial, leading the judge to announce Saturday that he would render a verdict on Monday.

Outside the courtroom, the verdict was met with screams by family members, two lawyers for the defendants told McClatchy news service. The judge did not allow the lawyers to attend Monday's session after he and the lawyers again bickered Saturday over security. One lawyer asked for a new judge, which drew Judge Sabri's ire, said Yasser Zeidan, one of the lawyers.

It is unclear how many defendants were in court for the hearing. Those who were not there, released on bail or still at large, were sentenced in absentia. Another 16 defendants were acquitted.

The Foreign Ministry released a statement on the verdict in an effort to mollify the outrage both in Egypt and internationally, and it suggested Monday's ruling was "only the first verdict in the trial process," noting that the case will now go to an appeals court.

Regardless, Amnesty International was among several human rights groups that immediately condemned the verdict.

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