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Egypt sentences 683 to death in another mass trial

Tuesday - 4/29/2014, 4:00am  ET

An Egyptian woman overcome by emotion weeps after a judge sentenced to death more than 680 alleged supporters of the country’s ousted Islamist president over acts of violence and the murder of policemen in the latest mass trial in the southern city of Minya, Egypt, Monday, April 28, 2014. Attorney Ahmed Hefni told reporters outside the court in 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. (AP Photo/Ahmed Gomaa)

Associated Press

MINYA, Egypt (AP) -- The Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader and more than 680 other people were sentenced to death Monday stemming from last year's post-coup violence in the latest mass trial that was denounced in the West and by human rights groups as contrary to the rule of law.

In a separate ruling Monday, a court banned the April 6 youth group -- one of several that engineered the 2011 uprising against longtime leader Hosni Mubarak that set off nearly three years of unrest. It ordered the confiscation of the group's offices.

The sentences for the 683 defendants were announced by Judge Said Youssef at a court session in the southern city of Minya that lasted only eight minutes.

The verdicts are not final and are expected to be overturned. Under the law, once the defendants who were tried in absentia turn themselves in -- which is all but 63 of the accused -- their trials will start over.

The mass trials were linked to riots in which supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi allegedly attacked police stations and churches in retaliation for security forces violently breaking up Cairo sit-ins by Islamists in August that left hundreds dead. The defendants in Monday's trial are part of a group of nearly 1,000 who were implicated in the deaths of three policemen and a civilian, as well as others who were injured.

Youssef said he was referring the death sentences -- which followed convictions for the violence -- to the Grand Mufti, Egypt's top Islamic official. The move is a legal requirement that is usually considered a formality, but it also allows the judge to change his mind.

Youssef also reduced the sentences against 529 defendants from a mass trial at which he presided in March. He upheld the death penalty for only 37 of them -- an extraordinarily high number under Egyptian law -- and commuted the rest to life imprisonment. The death sentences are being appealed by the prosecutor general.

By contrast, after the trial in the wake of the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, only five people were executed.

Monday's court action drew international outcry.

Amnesty International said it feared the judiciary is "becoming just another part of the authorities' repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale."

Washington called for the rulings to be reversed.

"The United States is deeply concerned by today's Egyptian court actions related to another mass trial and preliminary death sentences as well as the banning of the April 6 youth movement activities," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

"These court decisions run counter to the most basic democratic principles and foster the instability, extremism, and radicalization that Egypt's interim government says it seeks to resolve," she said.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said the verdicts "make a mockery of the rule of law."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the verdicts are likely to "undermine prospects for long-term stability," according to U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.

Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch said "the fact that the death sentences can be appealed provides little solace to hundreds of families that will go to sleep tonight facing the very real prospect that their loves ones could be executed without having an opportunity to present a case in court."

Egypt's military-backed government has cracked down on Morsi supporters under the banner of a "war against terrorism" while tightening its grip on the Arab world's most populous nation.

Morsi was removed from power in July by the military after millions demonstrated and demanded he step down. Afterward, his supporters held near daily demonstrations that frequently descended into violence during which hundreds were killed and 16,000 detained. In retaliation, Islamic militant carried out suicide bombing and attacked police and military.

The crackdown has ensnared secular-minded activists who opposed the interim government. In recent months, many of those who opposed Mubarak were imprisoned for defying a new law that that prohibits political gatherings without prior police permits.

Rights groups say they believe Mubarak's police state has returned.

"The ball is rolling, a frenzied media campaign is backing the security apparatus' vengeful spirit, police are acting with complete impunity ... and judges in this atmosphere have become tools in hands of the police," said Bahey Eldin Hassan, head of Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "Amid this madness, you can see verdicts like these."

The highest profile defendant who was convicted and sentenced to death Monday was Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood's spiritual guide. Like several of its leaders, he had no official post in Morsi's government but was believed to wield extensive influence.

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