Minya, Egypt — An Egyptian judge sentenced to death the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader and 682 other people Monday in the latest in a series of high-stakes mass trials that have been unprecedented in scope, drawing sharp condemnation from international rights groups.
The verdicts — which were appealed by general prosecutor— come as the military-backed government has launched a massive crackdown against Islamist supporters of ousted leader Mohammed Morsi, under the banner of "war against terrorism" while tightening its grip on the Arab world's most populous nation.
Suggesting there might be room for reversal, the same judge also reduced the sentences against 529 defendants indicted in a similar case in March, upholding the death penalty for only 37 and commuting the rest to life imprisonment.
Still, the three dozen death sentences that were upheld was an extraordinarily high number for Egypt, compared to the dramatic trial in the wake of the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, when only five people were sentenced to death and executed.
Judge Said Youssef said he was referring Monday's death sentences — which were for convictions of violence and killing policemen — to the Grand Mufti, the nation's top Islamic official — a requirement under Egyptian law that is usually considered a formality but also gives room for the judge to change his mind. Of the 683, all but 68 were tried in absentia.
The government has conducted a series of mass trials of Brotherhood supporters after a crackdown in which hundreds were killed and nearly 16,000 detained. It also branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, a claim the group denies.
Several secular-minded youth activists have been imprisoned for holding protests against a new law that prohibits the right to hold political gatherings without prior police permits. On Monday, a court ordered ban of April 6 youth group and confiscation of its offices. The group was among several that engineered the 2011 uprising against longtime leader Hosni Mubarak that set off nearly three-year turmoil.
"Egypt's judiciary risks becoming just another part of the authorities' repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale," Amnesty International's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said.
She added that the case "once again expose how arbitrary and selective Egypt's criminal justice system has become" and urged authorities to "come clean and acknowledge that the current system is neither fair nor independent or impartial."
The highest profile defendant convicted and sentenced to death on Monday was Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood's spiritual guide who — like several other heavy-weight Muslim Brotherhood leaders— had no official post in Morsi's government but was believed to wield extensive influence on decision making during Morsi's year in power. If his sentence is upheld, it would make him the most senior Brotherhood figure to receive capital punishment since one of the group's leading ideologues, Sayed Qutb, was executed in 1966.
Badie was not at the hearing in Minya on Monday but in another court, in Cairo, where he faces charges of murder and incitement to murder along with 16 other Brotherhood leaders in a case connected to deadly protests outside the group's headquarters last June.
The trials were linked to deadly riots that erupted in Minya and elsewhere in Egypt where Morsi's supporters allegedly attacked police stations and churches in retaliation for security forces violent disbandment of sit-ins held by Morsi supporters in Cairo last August that left hundreds dead. The cases involve murder of three policemen and a civilian along with the injury of others.
After Monday's ruling, which followed a single session in the case held last month, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, said the defendants were not given the chance to properly defend themselves. The proceedings went on without the judge even verifying that the defendants were present, she 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," she said. "There is no more serious violation of the most basic right of due process and the right to a fair trial than that."
Germany's Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement that the verdicts "make a mockery of the rule of law."
"The Egyptian authorities risk further destabilizing the country and cementing a political and social division ahead of the planned presidential elections in May," he said.
Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt also criticized the verdict in a message posted on his Twitter account, saying "the world must and will react!" he said.
Once the mufti reviews Monday's ruling, the same court will hold another session on June 21 to issue the final verdicts. The ultimate decision is up to the judge.
As the ruling was announced, an outcry erupted outside the court among the families and relatives of the defendants. Women fainted and wailed as many cried out, "Why? This is unfair!"
"My three sons are inside," said a woman who only gave her first name, Samiya, as she screamed in grief. "I have no one but God."
Mohammed Hassan Shehata said his son Mahmoud was arrested in January, six months after the alleged violence with which he was charged.
"There is no evidence whatsoever," he said. "If my son is guilty, behead him but if he is innocent, there will be a civil war."
Another woman who also only gave her first name, Safiya, 48, said her brother and son were sentenced to death. "I swear, they don't even pray, they don't go to mosques," she said. "They are not Muslim Brotherhood."
Gamal Sayyed, a 25-year-old school teacher who belongs to the Muslim Brotherhood and was speaking to The Associated Press from hiding, said he became a fugitive after he was arrested for three months and released pending investigation last year.
"This ruling is aimed at vilifying the group, creating in public minds images of devils, terrorists, and extremists," he said with a low voice. "This trial is crazy ... but nothing is going to intimidate the youth in the streets protesting against this bloody coup."
Defense lawyer Ali Kamal, said Monday's 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," Kamal said.
According to a judicial official who oversaw the investigation in the case, evidence presented in the trial consisted mostly of footage of the defendants showing them attacking and looting a police station in Cairo and setting fire to several government buildings. The defendants faced nearly 14 charges, five of them punishable by death, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information.
In a press conference in Istanbul, the Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance condemned Monday's ruling and called it "a farce."
But some among the general public in Cairo appeared to approve of the heavy-handed measures as a way to restore security or under the influence of a media campaign seeking to turn all dissent into conspiracy against national interests.
"Even if they sentence a million people to death, so what?" said Sadeek el-Moghazi, a 43-year-old newspaper vendor in the eastern district of Heliopolis. "This is the best ruling in the history of the Egyptian judiciary."