529 Morsi supporters sentenced to death in Egypt

An Egyptian court sentenced 529 supporters of deposed Islamist president Mohamed Morsi to death on Monday after just two hearings, in the largest mass sentencing in the country's modern history. The shock verdict, which came amid a sweeping crackdown on Morsi's supporters since his overthrow by the army last July, is likely to be overturned on appeal, legal experts said. The defendants in the southern province of Minya are part of a larger group of more than 1,200 alleged Islamists accused of killing policemen and rioting on August 14, after police killed hundreds of protesters while dispersing two Cairo protest camps. Of the 529 defendants sentenced to death, only 153 are in custody. The rest were tried in their absence and have the right to a retrial if they turn themselves in. Another 17 defendants were acquitted. The judge referred the death sentences for approval to the mufti, the government's official interpreter of Islamic law. The mufti has upheld death sentences in the past. The judgement can be appealed at the Court of Cassation, which would probably order a new trial or reduce the sentences, legal expert Gamal Eid said. "This sentencing is a catastrophe and a travesty and a scandal that will affect Egypt for many years," said Eid, who heads the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. - 'Judge rammed sentencing through' - Defence counsel Mohamed Tousson said the judge rammed through the sentencing after he was angered by a lawyer who demanded his recusal at the first hearing. "He didn't even ascertain the presence of the detained defendants, he only got to the 51st defendant," Tousson said. "A lawyer then demanded his recusal. He got very angry, and adjourned the trial for sentencing. "It's a huge violation of defendants' rights. It will be overturned for sure," he said. A second group of about 700 defendants, including Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement, are due in the dock on Tuesday. The Muslim Brotherhood said the verdict was yet "another indication that the corrupt judiciary is being used by the coup commanders to suppress the Egyptian revolution and install a brutal regime." At least 1,400 people have been killed in the crackdown on Morsi's supporters and thousands more arrested, according to human rights group Amnesty International. The Arab world's most populous country has been rocked by persistent protests and a wave of attacks by militants that have killed more than 200 soldiers and police. Morsi is himself currently on trial in three different cases, including one for inciting the killing of protesters outside one of the presidential palaces while he was in office. The army removed Egypt's first freely elected president after a single year in office following mass protests demanding his resignation. - 'Baseless charges' - The ensuing crackdown has also targeted prominent activists of the 2011 uprising against veteran president Hosni Mubarak, as well as journalists. A group of journalists working for Al-Jazeera television was back in court on Monday for the third hearing in their trial on charges of spreading false news and aiding the blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood. Award-winning Australian reporter Peter Greste, told reporters from the caged dock that he and his colleagues were being held on "baseless charges". "We haven't seen any evidence in the court that possibly justify the charges or our imprisonment," said Greste, dressed in a white prison uniform. "We spent three months in prison based on baseless charges." His comments were echoed by Al-Jazeera's Cairo bureau chief, Mohamed Fadel Fahmy. "We want to be free. We didn't do anything wrong," he said. Journalists around the world have staged protests demanding the reporters' release, with the United Nations and the United States also voicing their support. Egypt's interim president Adly Mansour has pledged to work towards a "speedy resolution of the case". The interim government's targeting of journalists and secular as well Islamist activists has prompted fears of a return to the authoritarian practices of the Mubarak era.