MINYA, Egypt — An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 682 other alleged Islamists to death, a lawyer and prosecutor said.
The same court, presided over by judge Said Youssef Sabry, also reversed 492 death sentences out of 529 it passed in March, commuting most of those to life in prison.
The defendants sentenced on Monday were accused of involvement in the murder and attempted murder of policemen in the southern Minya province on August 14, the day police killed hundreds of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi’s supporters in clashes in Cairo.
Several female relatives waiting outside the courtroom fainted on hearing news of the verdict.
Relatives collapsed in grief after hearing the verdict. This woman has 5 family members in the case. pic.twitter.com/NrGElugB2n
— Orla Guerin (@OrlaGuerin) April 28, 2014
“Where is the justice?” others chanted.
Several said family members had been unjustly convicted or put on trial.
Attorney Ahmed Hefni told reporters outside the court in the southern city of Minya on Monday that the death sentences first have to be approved by Egypt’s mufti, the top Islamic official — a step that is usually considered a formality.
The verdict was the first against Badie, the spiritual head of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, in the several trials he faces on various charges along with Morsi himself and other Brotherhood leaders.
After the mufti’s decision, the same court will hold another session on June 21 to issue the final verdicts.
Monday’s stunning decision sparked an outcry among families of the defendants, with women fainting and relatives wailing and crying out “Why? This is unfair!”
“My three sons are inside,” said a woman outside the court who only gave her first name, Samiya, as she screamed in grief. “I have no one but God.”
Another lawyer, Ali Kamal, said the hearing lasted only eight minutes.
Security forces surrounded the court building and blocked roads, preventing families and media from attending the proceedings.
“This is against the spirit of the law. The verdicts will be easily appealed,” Kamal told reporters.
Monday’s ruling comes amid a brutal crackdown on Morsi supporters and the Brotherhood since the military overthrew him last July amid massive protests calling for his resignation.
The court has come under the spotlight after the same judge in March sentenced the 529 defendants to death in just two sessions. That verdict outraged the United Nations and human rights groups.
The second batch of nearly 700, including Badie, faced charges of the murder and attempted murder of several policemen during rioting by Morsi supporters in Minya on August 14.
The charges are similar to those faced by the other 529.
Relatives of the defendants waited outside the heavily secured court on Monday to awaiting the latest verdicts. Several said family members had been unjustly convicted or placed on trial.
“My son does not even pray, he does not even know where the mosque is,” said one woman, whose son was among the 529 sentenced to death in March.
The rioting last August 14 erupted as news spread that police had killed hundreds of Morsi supporters while dispersing two protest camps in Cairo.
Monday’s session was the second for the around 700 defendants, after an opening hearing in March which Sabry adjourned to announce the verdict.
Of the nearly 700 accused, some 50 are in custody while the others are either on bail or on the run.
The court’s verdicts can be appealed at the Court of Cassation, which would probably order a new trial or commute the sentences for the 529 already given the death penalty, legal expert Gamal Eid said.
Defense lawyers boycotted the last session, branding it “farcical” after the mass death sentencing which the United Nations denounced as a breach of international human rights law.
Defense lawyer Khaled Elkomy claims that 60 percent of the 529 defendants, including teachers and some doctors, have evidence that “proves they were not present the day they were accused of attacking the Matay police station” in Minya, a statement released by human rights group Avaaz said.
The government has defended the court’s handling of the case, insisting that the sentences were passed only “after careful study” and were subject to appeal.
Prosecutor Abdel Rahim Abdel Malek defended the charges against the 529.
“We have strong evidence that incriminates all those sentenced to death,” he told AFP.
“We have videos, witness accounts… documents that prove that the Muslim Brotherhood had called on its supporters to attack police stations and public and private property in case the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya (in Cairo) was broken up, and that’s what happened,” he said.
Last month’s death sentences sent a chill through opponents of the military-installed regime, which has held mass trials of thousands of alleged Islamists since Morsi’s ouster.
At least 1,000 people have been sentenced since December, all in groups of 10 or more. Jail terms passed range from six months to life, as well as the death penalty.
Amnesty International says that more than 1,400 people have been killed in the police crackdown since the army overthrew Morsi, Egypt’s first elected and civilian leader.