Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Democracy In Egypt : 529 Morsi Supporters Sentenced To Death

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CAIRO—An Egyptian court on Monday convicted 529 alleged supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood on charges of murdering a police commander and sentenced them to death, in one of the harshest verdicts ever imposed in the nation's modern history.

Legal experts said the verdicts, handed down on only the trial's second day, are likely to be overturned on appeal. Still, they underscored the determination of Egypt's military-backed regime and a sympathetic judiciary to eradicate the once politically powerful movement.

Prosecutors accused the defendants of murdering a police official last August during rioting in Minya, an Islamist stronghold about 150 miles south of Cairo. The melee erupted after security forces broke up to two large protest camps in Cairo, leaving nearly 1,000 people dead. No one has been charged in those deaths.

Sixteen people were acquitted of the charges, which included the attempted murder of another police officer. About 400 of those convicted and sentenced to death were tried in absentia; they are at large. Lawyers for the defendants said they hadn't been given any opportunity to mount a defense.

Condemnation of the mass death sentence was swift. Amnesty International characterized it as a "grotesque example of the shortcomings and the selective nature of Egypt's justice system," while human-rights lawyers decried the trial as being devoid of due process. The Muslim Brotherhood denounced it "as inhumane and a clear violation of all norms of humane and legal justice" and vowed to appeal.

"This decision is unjust and unusual not only for Egypt, but for any nation in the world," said Gamal Eid, a prominent Egyptian human-rights attorney not involved in the case. "The decision is a disaster in itself, even if it gets overturned."

In a statement to international media, Egypt's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said the sentence was "only the first verdict in the trial process" and that it was reached "after careful study of the case." The statement also said the judiciary "is not influenced in any way by the executive branch of government."

Still, the harsh punishment raised concerns that the military-backed regime's crackdown on dissenting voices was escalating and shedding any semblance of judicial impartiality, many legal experts and analysts said.

Also on Monday, three journalists from Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera were denied bail in a trial in which they are accused of supporting a terrorist organization by airing false news intended to damage Egypt's national security.

Lawyers for the defendants sentenced to death complained that the proceedings, which began Saturday, had moved unusually quickly, with a vast majority of the accused not being produced in court and lawyers not having an opportunity to properly review a 3,070-page case file.

Khaled ElKoumi, a lawyer for one of the accused, said he and his colleagues' demands for time to form a defense was met with hostility by the presiding judge.

"Those who were held in prison did not have the chance to attend the trial or to defend themselves even through lawyers, which is against the law in any part of the world," Mr. ElKoumi said.

Last July, Egypt's military ousted President Mohammed Morsi, the nation's first freely elected leader and a former top Brotherhood official, before moving quickly to crack down on the Islamist group, killing at least 2,000 and imprisoning thousands more.

In December, Egypt's interim government outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood and declared the once politically powerful movement a terrorist organization, exposing its members and supporters to harsh sentences under antiterrorism laws. The government hasn't provided public evidence linking the group to a continuing series of attacks on police and military targets that began after the coup.

The imprisoned Mr. Morsi is being tried on a range of charges, including murder and treason, in what Western governments and rights groups have described as politically motivated trials.

Al Ahram, Egypt's flagship state newspaper, said Monday's verdict represented the largest capital punishment conviction in the history of Egypt's courts.

Nasser Amin, an expert on Egypt's criminal justice system, called the verdict "unprecedented" and described the verdicts as "excessive and unusual."

"This appears to be designed to send a message rather than be implemented legally," Mr. Amin said, adding that the sentences were unlikely to be upheld on appeal.

Mr. Amin said Egyptian law allows people tried in absentia to be handed the harshest sentence requested by prosecutors, but would be automatically granted new trials once they are in custody.

In verdicts involving a death sentence, the decision is forwarded to a government-appointed scholar to interpret Islamic law. The scholar will offer an opinion on the sentence, but judges aren't bound by law to accept it, Mr. Amin said.

Still, the defendants will be able to appeal the final decision by the judges, expected on April 28, in a higher court. Experts said the scope of Monday's sentence makes it unlikely to withstand scrutiny from a higher court and at least lead to new trials.

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