An Egyptian court has sentenced 529 members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood movement to death on charges that included murder, a defense lawyer said yesterday, in a sharp escalation of a crackdown on the Islamist group.
The ruling handed down by a court in Minya Province was the biggest mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history, lawyers said.
The turmoil gripping the country has deepened since the army overthrew former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi in July. Morsi was Egypt’s first freely elected president and belonged to the Brotherhood.
Since his ouster, security forces have killed hundreds of Brotherhood members in the streets and arrested thousands more.
Most of the defendants at yesterday’s hearing were detained during clashes that erupted in the southern province of Minya after the forced dispersal of two Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo on Aug. 14 last year.
Islamists have also stepped up attacks on the police and army since Morsi’s ouster, killing hundreds and carrying out high-profile operations against Egyptian Ministry of the Interior officials.
“The court has decided to sentence to death 529 defendants and 16 were acquitted,” lawyer Ahmed al-Sharif told reporters.
The ruling can be appealed.
The charges against the group, on trial in Minya since Saturday, include violence, inciting murder, storming a police station, attacking persons, and damaging public and private property.
“This is the quickest case and the number sentenced to death is the largest in the history of the judiciary,” said lawyer Nabil Abdel Salam, who defends some Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi.
State television reported the sentences without comment and a government spokesman did not immediately respond to calls.
Only 123 of the defendants were present at the sentencing. The rest have either been released, are out on bail or on the run.
“When the trial starts on Saturday and it is just a procedural hearing, and the judge doesn’t listen to any lawyers or witnesses and doesn’t even call the defendants, you are before a group of thugs and not the judiciary,” Walid, a relative of one of the defendants, said by telephone.
It was not possible to confirm his account of the proceedings independently.
The government has declared the Brotherhood a “terrorist” organization, but the group insists it is committed to peaceful activism.
Analysts say that some of its members could turn violent if the state keeps up pressure on the movement, which won the vast majority of elections since an army-backed popular uprising toppled former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Egyptian authorities make no distinction between the Brotherhood and hardcore militant groups based in the Sinai Peninsula that pose a major security challenge to the state despite army offensives against their fighters.
Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders, who are on trial on a range of charges, have accused the military of staging a coup and undermining democracy.