CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court sentenced ousted President Mohammed Morsi and over 100 others to death Saturday over a mass prison break during the 2011 uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak and later brought Islamists to power for the first time in Egypt.
As is customary in passing capital punishment, Judge Shaaban el-Shami referred his death sentence on Morsi and others to the nation’s top Muslim theologian, or mufti, for his non-binding opinion. El-Shami set June 2 for the next hearing.
Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, was ousted by the military in July 2013 following days of mass street protests by Egyptians demanding that he be removed because of his divisive policies. Morsi’s successor, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, was the military chief at the time and led the ouster. El-Sissi ran for president last year and won the vote in a landslide.
Also sentenced to death with Morsi in the prison break case were 105 defendants, most of them were tried and convicted in absentia. They include some 70 Palestinians. Those tried in absentia in Egypt receive automatic retrials once detained.
Supporters of Morsi and his now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood chanted “down, down with military rule” as el-Shami announced the verdict in the courtroom, a converted lecture hall in the national police academy in an eastern Cairo suburb.
Prosecutors have alleged in the case that armed members of the Palestinian Hamas group entered Egypt during the 18-day uprising through illegal tunnels running under Gaza’s border with Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Taking advantage of the uprising’s turmoil, the militants fought their way into several prisons, releasing Morsi, more than 30 other Brotherhood leaders and some 20,000 inmates, prosecutors say. Several prison guards were killed and parts of the stormed prisons were damaged.
Those sentenced to death with Morsi on Saturday were the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohammed Badie, as well as one of the Arab world’s best known Islamic scholars, the Qatar-based Youssef al-Qaradawi.
Also sprang out of jail in 2011 were Hezbollah and Hamas operatives who had been convicted and sentenced to jail terms over terror-related charges. Those days of chaos and bloodshed in 2011 also saw dozens of police stations across the country stormed by protesters. Media commentators maintain that the jailbreaks and the attack on police stations were part of a Brotherhood plot to spread fear and chaos to ensure the fall of Mubarak.
The Brotherhood went on to win every election held in Egypt between 2011 and until Morsi’s ouster in July 2013. Its popularity began to dramatically slide after Morsi took office in June 2012 and he decreed himself above any sort of oversight later that year and became increasingly perceived to be working for the Brotherhood and its supporters, not all Egyptians.
Hamas is the Palestinian chapter of the Brotherhood and its leaders enjoyed close relations with Morsi during his one year in office. It has consistently denied meddling in Egypt’s affairs, including participating in the 2011 mass prison break, but relations between the group and the post-Morsi government in Cairo have been fraught with tension. Egypt frequently accuses Hamas of being behind some of the attacks staged by Islamic militants in northern Sinai since Morsi’s ouster.
Amr Darrag, a Cabinet minister under Morsi and a co-founder of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, condemned Saturday’s verdicts.
“Today will be remembered as one of the darkest days in Egypt history,” Darrag said in a statement. But “there is something far larger at stake – the rights of millions of Egyptians to live freely and without fear, and to choose their leaders through the ballot box.”
Amnesty International also denounced the verdicts, which come after several mass death penalty trials criticized by human rights activists and world powers. It called for a retrial, asserting that all evidence gathered from Morsi and other defendants were inadmissible because of what it called their illegal detention prior to trial.
“The death penalty has become the favorite tool for the Egyptian authorities to purge the political opposition,” Amnesty said.
Morsi already is serving a 20-year sentence following his conviction on April 21 on charges linked to the killing of protesters outside a Cairo presidential palace in December 2012.
The former president escaped a death sentence in a separate case before el-Shami related to allegations that Morsi, several of his aides and leaders of the Brotherhood allegedly passed state secrets to foreign groups, including Hamas group and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, during his one year in office. A total of 16 senior Brotherhood leaders and aides were sentenced to death by el-Shami in that case. The 16 include one woman, Sondos Assem, a presidential press aide who is now a fugitive.
A verdict on Morsi’s role in that case will be announced in the June 2 hearing.
Even if confirmed by the mufti, Saturday’s death sentences still can be appealed.