Muslim Brotherhood facing wave of trials

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CAIRO -- Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood faces a wave of trials unlike any it has seen in its history, threatening to put a large number of its senior leadership behind bars for years, even life, as military-backed authorities determined to cripple the group prepare prosecutions on charges including inciting violence and terrorism.

The prosecutions are the next phase in a wide-ranging crackdown on the Brotherhood following the military's July ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, who goes on trial next month.

Mr. Morsi's trial, the most high-profile case, is setting a pattern for the others, aiming to show that the Brotherhood leadership directed a campaign of violence. Mr. Morsi is charged with inciting murder in connection to a protest during his year in office in which his supporters attacked protesters outside his palace.

Leaders may also be charged with fomenting violence in post-coup protests by Mr. Morsi's Islamist supporters demanding his reinstatement. Security forces have cracked down heavily on the protests, claiming some participants were armed, and have killed hundreds of Mr. Morsi backers. With each new round of protests and violence, prosecutors consider new charges that include incitement and arming supporters, Brotherhood lawyers say.

On Saturday, a car bomb exploded near an Egyptian military intelligence compound in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, wounding six soldiers, security officials said, as militants appear to be expanding the scope of their attacks.

Ismailia borders the restive Sinai Peninsula, where the military is on the offensive against insurgents there.

In recent weeks, militants have taken their fight against the security forces beyond northern Sinai, carrying out bombings in the Suez Canal area and even in the Egyptian capital.

Ibrahim el-Said, a senior member of the Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice party, denounced the violence. He said his coalition doesn't use violent tactics.

Mr. Said accused the current authorities of "fabricating" some of the attacks on security installations to link the opposition to terrorism and deepen the public's sense of insecurity and resentment toward the Brotherhood.

"We don't deny there are some who have adopted violence against the state," he said. "We reject violence. ... But I am always skeptical of the information coming from the other side."

So far, at least nine and possibly more than a dozen cases against Brotherhood officials are being put together, according to a prosecution official and Brotherhood lawyers. Each has multiple defendants. Four cases, including Mr. Morsi's, have been referred to trial with a total of at least 34 defendants, though a few are being tried in absentia. Ahmed Seif, a human rights lawyer following the investigations, predicted around 200 Brotherhood leaders and senior officials could eventually end up in court.

Brotherhood lawyer Mohammed Gharib denounced the cases as simply "a fig leaf by authorities to cover over their scandal" -- to justify the coup and the crackdown, pointing out that no police have been investigated for killing protesters. "They are going after their main political opponent," he told The Associated Press last week.

On Friday, the Brotherhood legal team said Mr. Gharib left the country for security reasons and has been replaced by another lawyer. Dozens of Brotherhood lawyers have already been detained. Mr. Gharib, himself tried under previous administrations, represented the Brotherhood's jailed top leader Mohammed Badie and other senior members.

Some 2,000 high- and middle-ranking Brotherhood figures have been detained, and Mr. Gharib estimated another 6,000 rank-and-file members and supporters are also in custody, being questioned for material to use against the leadership. Among the biggest figures in custody are Mr. Morsi, Mr. Badie and his deputy Khairat el-Shater, and almost half the group's main leadership council and many of its former parliament members. Rights lawyers say they are struggling to keep track, given the high numbers jailed and prosecutors who are keeping a tight lid on information.

Even rights lawyers who see a strong basis for prosecuting Brotherhood figures over violence and abuses of power expressed concern over the scope of the projected trials. Rights advocates have called for a thorough program of transitional justice to address abuses from the time of autocrat Hosni Mubarak and through the past 2 1/2 years of Egypt's turmoil since his ouster -- which would also mean trying police and military officials for killing protesters and other rights violations.

Instead, they fear unfair trials with shoddy evidence will be used for the political aim of undermining the Brotherhood.

"They want revenge," Amr Imam, a rights lawyer with the Hesham Mubarak Legal Center, said of the current authorities. "The rights of not only the Brotherhood, but many other Egyptians, will be lost because of arbitrary procedures."

The Brotherhood, which despite being illegal grew in recent decades to become Egypt's best organized political group, leaped to power in elections after Mr. Mubarak's 2011 ouster. The presidency of Mr. Morsi, a Brotherhood member who became Egypt's first freely elected leader, prompted a massive backlash from many in the public who saw the group as trying to monopolize power and impose its vision on the country.

During its 85-year history, the Muslim Brotherhood has seen frequent waves of arrests. But this time is different.

Under Mr. Mubarak, Brotherhood leaders at times were jailed under emergency laws on accusations of belonging to a banned group, but were only occasionally brought to trial. Instead, their detentions and releases were part of a political game, used by the regime to wrest concessions from the group, particularly ahead of elections.

"We used to play chess with the previous regime," said Mr. Gharib. "Now it is straight out crushing."

Mr. Gharib also noted another difference -- in the past 30 years under Mr. Mubarak, there were few attempts to associate the group with violence.


First Published October 19, 2013 8:00 PM


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