EGYPT
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Mohammed Mursi

Court hands death sentences to 529 loyalists of ex-Egypt president Mursi

Mass trial ends with convictions for attackson police,but human rights lawyer says appeals are likely over the 'unacceptable' verdicts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 March, 2014, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 March, 2014, 12:00am

A court in Egypt has sentenced to death 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed party of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Mursi - after convicting them of charges including murdering a policeman and attacking police.

Turmoil in Egypt has grown increasingly violent since the army overthrew Mursi - Egypt's first freely elected president - after protests last July.

Most defendants in the mass trial were dealt with in absentia, while more than 150 stood in court in unprecedentedly rushed hearings lasting only two days. Sixteen suspects were acquitted.

The verdicts - and extremely harsh sentences - are likely to be overturned on appeal, a human rights lawyer said after the trial ended in the city of Minya, north of Cairo. "This is way over the top and unacceptable," said lawyer Mohammed Zarie, who heads a human rights centre in Cairo.

"It turns the judiciary in Egypt from a tool for achieving justice to an instrument for taking revenge.

"This verdict could be a precedent both in the history of Egyptian courts and perhaps, tribunals elsewhere in the world."

The mass trial shows the determination of Egypt's military-backed government to break the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group and leaves no room for political reconciliation with the country's largest Islamist bloc.

The court in Minya issued its ruling after only two sessions, in which the defendants' lawyers complained they had had no chance to present their case.

A total of 545 suspects were charged with the killing of a police officer, attempting to kill two others, attacking a police station and other acts of violence in August. The rioting came after an August 14 police crackdown on two pro-Mursi sit-in camps in Cairo, which killed hundreds of people and sparked days of unrest across the country.

Mursi ruled for a year before he was toppled by Egypt's military, following four days of protests by rivals demanding he step down because of abuse of power.

Since his removal and the crackdown on the sit-ins, Mursi's Brotherhood and other Islamist supporters have held near-daily demonstrations, usually ending in violent battles with police.

The military-backed government has carried out hundreds of arrests, including those of top Brotherhood leaders. At the same time, militant bombings, suicide attacks and other assaults - most by an al-Qaeda-inspired group - have increasingly targeted police and military forces in retaliation for the crackdown on Islamists.

Authorities blame the Brotherhood for the violence - calling it a terrorist organisation and confiscating its assets. But the group denies any link to the attacks and has denounced the violence.

Today, another mass trial of Mursi supporters will open - also in Minya - with 683suspects facing similar charges.

The defendants in this case include Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie, who also faces many other trials, plus senior members of the group from Minya.