28 Apr 2014

Egypt: 682 Muslim Brotherhood supporters sentenced to death

An Egyptian court recommends the death penalty for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, and 682 of his supporters.

Above: family members of the Muslim Brotherhood supporters gather outside court

The court also handed down a final capital punishment ruling for 37 others.

Seeking the death penalty for Mohammed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood‘s general guide, is certain to raise tension in Egypt, which has been gripped by turmoil since the army removed the Brotherhood from power last year.

The decisions are possibly the largest possible death sentences in recent world history – Sarah Leah Whitson at Human Rights Watch

The 37 death sentences were part of a final judgement on 529 Brotherhood supporters who were sentenced to death last month. The remaining defendants were sentenced to life in jail.

Death sentence

Death sentence recommendations in the case involving Badie will be passed on to Egypt’s Mufti, the highest religious authority. His opinion is not legally binding and can be ignored by the court.

“The decisions are possibly the largest possible death sentences in recent world history. While they’re exceptional in scale, they’re certainly not exceptional in kind,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch.

“It seems that these sentences are aimed at striking fear and terror into the hearts of those who oppose the interim government including the interim government.”

The rulings can be appealed. Many defendants are on the run. Nevertheless, the cases have raised new questions about Egypt’s stumbling political transition three years after an army-backed popular uprising ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak and raised hopes of a robust democracy.

Pro-democracy movement

A pro-democracy movement that helped ignite the uprising that toppled Mr Mubarak in 2011 was banned by court order on Monday, judicial sources and the website of the state-run Al-Ahram newspaper said.

The ruling banning the activities of the 6 April movement follows the imprisonment of three of its leading members last year on charges of protesting illegally. The charges against 6 April included “damaging the image of the state”, according to the Al-Ahram report.

Mohammed Badie, the Muslim Brotherhood's general guide (Reuters)

Above: senior Muslim Brotherhood member Mohammed Badie in court

As soon as word spread of the death sentences, relatives of the defendants screamed and cried outside the court in the southern town of Minya.

Some blamed Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who deposed President Mohammed Morsi of the Brotherhood last July. He is expected to easily win presidential elections next month.

‘Ruling like a king’

“Sisi is ruling like a king” and “May God punish you for what you did” some people chanted. Egypt’s biggest political party until last year, the Brotherhood has been outlawed and driven underground.

It has vowed to bring down the government through protests, even though a security campaign has weakened the movement, which is believed to have about one million supporters in the country of 85 million.

Despite decades of repression under one Egyptian ruler after another, the Brotherhood has managed to survive, winning over Egyptians with its social networks and charities.

This time, it lost considerable popular support after Mr Morsi was accused of trying to acquire unlimited powers and mismanaging the economy during his year in office.

‘Terrorist group’

But authorities still see the movement as a major threat. Mr Badie was charged with crimes including inciting violence that followed the army overthrow of President Morsi.

Hundreds of Brotherhood supporters and members of the security forces have been killed in political violence and thousands of Islamists and some secular dissidents jailed by authorities since then.

The biggest trials in Egypt’s modern history have reinforced fears among human rights groups that the military-backed government and anti-Islamist judges are bent on crushing dissent. The authorities have branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, an allegation it denies.

In April, David Cameron ordered an investigation into the “activities” of the Brotherhood and the UK’s policy towards the group.