CAIRO — Rights activists lashed out Monday at the death sentences handed down against 528 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood as part of a government campaign to squash the Islamist movement.
More than 150 of 545 defendants stood trial on charges of killing a policeman and attacking police. The others were tried in absentia, Egypt news agency MENA reported; 16 defendants were acquitted.
The court hearings that convicted the defendants lasted two days. Defense lawyers complained they never had a chance to present their case in the trial held in the city of Minya.
"This is the largest single batch of simultaneous death sentences we've seen in recent years, not just in Egypt but anywhere in the world," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International, said Monday in a report.
"Imposing death sentences of this magnitude in a single case makes Egypt surpass most other countries' use of capital punishment in a year," she added.
The verdict precedes another case set to open on Tuesday in which nearly 700 defendants are facing similar charges.
"The trials are part of the raging battle between the military-led government and Muslim Brotherhood," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
"What these trials tell us is that the government has been systematically trying to weaken the Muslim Brotherhood and force them to accept the road map set by the military government."
Monday's ruling comes nearly nine months after the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi was ousted from the presidency . After millions took to the streets to protest against Morsi's presidency last June, Egypt's army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi forced Morsi aside and issued a political program that called for fresh parliamentary and presidential elections, which are expected to be held this year.
Security forces put down massive Brotherhood-led protests that followed Morsi's arrest. The Brotherhood was outlawed, and thousands of the group's supporters, leaders and members have been thrown in jail while others have fled the country.
Brotherhood supporters have continued some protests against the authorities although the numbers in the streets have dwindled. Polls have shown strong support for the military and its handling of the unrest, especially in the capital of Cairo.
Morsi opponents accused him of becoming a dictator and said he was ruining the promise of Egypt's revolution of 2011 in which longtime dictator Hosni Murbarak was also forced out by the military.
"What the trials say is that the military-led government has failed so far to basically force the Muslim Brothers to accept the status quo," Gerges said. "The trials really reflect the political stalemate that exists in Egypt."
The Muslim Brotherhood's London press office described Monday's ruling as an "inhumane and a clear violation of all norms of humane and legal justice" and said it will not weaken the group's resolve.
"The verdict is yet another clear indication that the corrupt judiciary is being utilized by the coup commanders to suppress the Egyptian revolution and install a brutal regime," it said in an e-mailed statement, vowing to appeal the ruling.
Monday's verdict can be appealed. H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, said he doubts the death sentence will be implemented.
"This is a first stage court," Hellyer said. "There are others for the defendants to appeal to."
"But the issuing of the verdict in any case, even if it is almost certain to be overturned, is something to note when understanding what the legal system in Egypt is prepared to engage in when it comes to these types of cases," Hellyer said.
On Monday, a Cairo court resumed the trial of journalists with the Qatari-owned television network Al Jazeera. Australian Peter Greste, local journalist Baher Mohamed and Mohamed Fahmy, who is Egyptian-Canadian, appeared in court after being jailed for three months on charges of spreading false news and aiding the Brotherhood.
The trial was adjourned until March 31.
Al Jazeera Arabic reporter Abdullah Elshamy has been detained since last August without trial or charges.
"Without an independent and impartial process that can deliver truth and justice for all, many will question whether Egypt's criminal justice system has indeed anything to do with justice," Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said Monday in a report.