Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie (front, with the white beard and glasses) and 47 other defendants stand behind bars during the trial of Brotherhood members at a Cairo courtroom on March 6, 2014. Photo via Ahmed Jamil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Yesterday, an Egyptian court sentenced 529 alleged Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death—the largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences issued in recent memory, according to Amnesty International. The condemned are accused of attacking a police station in the Minya governorate, just south of Cairo, last year, stealing weapons, killing an officer, and trying to kill two more.
Even though many of them are still protesting their innocence, it took only two days to find more than 500 people guilty of killing one man. That stands in stark contrast to the fact that, more than three years after the first Egyptian uprising, not one police officer has been convicted of killing protesters—despite the hundreds of civilian deaths at the hands of security services during those 18 days.
It’s not much of a surprise that this will go down as one of the quickest—as well as one of the largest—mass death penalty sentences in history. The trial began on Saturday and finished on Monday, and normal legal procedures, or even a vague sense of due process, were almost completely ignored. Defense lawyers said they had no time to read the 3,000-page case file and weren’t allowed to question witnesses for the prosecution.
When the judge announced the death sentences, no witnesses had been cross-examined, and the majority of defendants and their lawyers had been excluded from the courtroom.
"This is the collapse of the justice system in Egypt," said Ali Kamal, one of the lawyers for the accused.
The event that the condemned took part in was just one of many aggressive acts against police and Christian property following the deaths of around 900 people during the clearance of a Cairo sit-in last August, which was led by the Brotherhood in opposition to their ousting from power the previous month.
The verdict is yet another sign that Egypt's establishment has no intention of easing up on Brotherhood supporters, with more than 16,000 already arrested since former president and Brotherhood member Mohamed Morsi was deposed by the military in July of last year.
Thankfully, it's likely that a more reasonable judge will eventually overturn the sentence and maybe even the guilty verdict, and the country's leading religious official also has the option to commute the verdict. But in the meantime, the convicted and their families must live in the shadow of an imminent execution.
A burned-out Minya church that was destroyed in the same wave of violence that led to the death of the police officer. Photo by Nadine Marroushi
Yesterday, I spoke to one of those sentenced to death, as well as five family members of the condemned. They said that none of the accused were guilty, which is slightly questionable—someone was murdered, after all. But it clearly doesn't take more than 500 people to kill one man.
One man said that his brother, who was sentenced to death in absentia, was profoundly disabled and would be physically incapable of attacking a policeman. Another, a medical student in hiding at a friend's house, told me that he had been hundreds of miles away at the time the police station was attacked.
More than 400 of the defendants are not in custody. Ezzat Mohamed, who’s currently in hiding away from his home in Minya, is one of them. His wife, Nihad, said that he was innocent and called the sentence a "tragedy,” adding that her four children—aged from six to 17 years—were finding it hard to understand what was happening.
She kept repeating in Arabic, "Allah suffices for me, for he is the best disposer of affairs," a line from the Qur’an that the devout use to soothe themselves in times of trouble.
Her 17-year-old daughter, Nada, spoke to me on the phone in broken English. "It's a horrible feeling, that you lost someone from your family," she said. "My father is a very kind, respectable person."
She paused, before reverting to Arabic and whispering, “Down with the military government."
The sheer volume of the sentences and the grotesque flippancy surrounding them will surely do nothing but harden the polarization between supporters of Morsi's Brotherhood and backers of the military-installed administration, which resigned unexpectedly yesterday, paving the way for Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fattah al Sisi to make a bid for the country’s presidency.
Haithem Zeidan, a lawyer practicing in Cairo, who describes himself as "pro-army," told me that the death penalty decision was not final and would probably be reversed, but said that he welcomed it anyway. Like millions of other Egyptians, he believes the Brotherhood are a terrorist organization, as they were officially designated by the interim government last December (though no evidence has been provided to support the classification).
"This verdict reduces the terrorist movement and deters them from doing these things again," said Zeidan. Like many, he believes that harsh repression is a legitimate and effective deterrent against the Islamist opposition.
Things could get even worse today, as 683 more people accused of involvement in the Minya violence are appearing before the same judge. One of the accused is Mohammed Badie, the Supreme Guide of the Brotherhood, the organization’s leading figure.
Beyond the Brotherhood, there is a group of militants who have taken to shooting individual policeman dead while they're isolated at checkpoints. Some young Brotherhood activists are now moving closer to the idea that "anything below bullets" is an acceptable response to state violence, including targeting individual officials for nonlethal reprisal attacks.
If Mohammed Badie is sentenced to death—and even if that sentence is ultimately commuted—it's likely that the response from Brotherhood members won't be nearly as restrained as it has been in the past.
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