CAIRO — An Egyptian court sentenced 529 people to death on Monday in a two-day mass trial that saw most of the defendants banned from the courtroom, defense lawyers prevented from making arguments, and not a single objection allowed to be tabled.
The group was found guilty of murdering a policeman during clashes in the city of Minya, south of Cairo, in August. They were also found guilty of violence, inciting murder, storming a police station, attacking persons, and damaging public and private property. The group is also accused of being members of the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, though many have denied any association with the movement, or with the charges they have been convicted of.
The mass trial held in Minya is one of many taking place across the country as Egypt's penitentiary and judicial systems struggle to cope with teeming jail cells. Egyptian human rights lawyers have called the trial the starkest example to date of how Egyptian courts are being politicized to enact a sweeping crackdown on the Brotherhood movement.
Rights lawyer Negad Borai said the decision by the judge was a manifestation of "the collapse, even in the most technical ways, of executing justice" as courts and police rush to imprison any person — rightfully or not — accused of being a member of the Brotherhood.
The trial began on Saturday. By Monday morning, judge Said Youssef had handed down the sentence. Of the 529 people given the death penalty, only 51 were allowed to hear the charges against them in court. An additional 103 were in police detention, but not allowed in court, and the rest were tried in absentia. No defense lawyers were allowed to present their arguments or table any objections.
"This judge is trying to kill the law," said defense lawyer Ahmed Shabib, who represented 49 of the men sentenced. "What happened in Minya today was not justice."
Shabib said lawyers had repeatedly asked that the judge to delay the case to give both defense and prosecution adequate time to review the hundreds of files before them. On Saturday, he said, the judge got into a heated argument with lawyers over a motion to move the trial to another court, and asked court security to surround the lawyers.
"He threatened the lawyers and acted as if none of the laws in this country existed," Shabib said. "This trial was a farce."
Egyptian authorities say that thousands have been killed and more than 16,000 arrested since the military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood government on July 3. The case in Minya focused on those who were detained during local clashes following the dispersal of the Brotherhood's largest protest camp in Cairo's Rabaa Square on Aug. 14.
Several relatives of the sentenced said they had hard evidence that their loved ones had nothing to do with the Minya clashes.
"The judge did not even look at the evidence, he just sentenced them," said Maha Eid, whose husband Ahmed Eid was defendant No. 391. As a lawyer who often represents Brotherhood members in local courts, Ali was on the phone with the local police commissioner at the time of the protest. The case against him claims he was arrested at that protest, but phone records and logs show that later that day he had a meeting with the police commissioner in his office.
"He is being accused of things he did not do. His name was put down as part of a vendetta against him by other lawyers who did not like him," said Ali's wife.
The family of Essam Ahmed, defendant No. 44, also said they had strong evidence that he did not take part in violent clashes in Minya. Ahmed, they explained, is in a wheelchair, the lower half of his body paralyzed.
"How can a person who cannot even move by himself take part in and injure people in violent clashes?" asked his brother.
Outside the courtroom many could not be comforted. Defense lawyers have promised to launch appeals and the verdict is still awaiting confirmation by the mufti, or the government's official interpreter of Islamic law, for ratification. The mufti has upheld death sentences in the past.
On Twitter, photos were posted of the families outside the court responding to the verdict.