March 24 (Bloomberg) -- An Egyptian court handed death sentences to more than 500 people that state media said were supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, on charges including murdering a police officer.
The criminal court in the southern province of Minya imposed the death penalties at the end of a trial that began on Saturday, said Osama Metwally, director of security in Minya. The court referred the sentences to Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the country’s leading authority on religious law, for ratification, the state-run Middle East News Agency reported. The ruling sparked an outcry from human rights activists.
“This is more than a disaster and a catastrophe,” said Gamal Eid, a Cairo-based human rights lawyer. While the sentences probably will be reduced on appeal, they risk spurring “those who haven’t been violent in the past to resort to violence,” Eid said.
Security forces have cracked down on the Brotherhood since the army ousted Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July. The charges in Minya include the deadly storming of a police station, part of the unrest that erupted after police broke up pro-Mursi protest camps in August, killing hundreds.
MENA said 528 people had been sentenced, and Metwally gave the figure as 529. Only 153 defendants are in police custody, he said by phone.
The number of convictions is “pretty shocking” and the U.S. is raising concerns over the case with Egypt, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters in Washington.
The Brotherhood described the sentencing as “shocking and unprecedented” and vowed to appeal.
“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,” the Brotherhood’s London press office said in a statement. “These unjust sentences will not weaken our resolve.”
“The Egyptian government would like to affirm that the Egyptian judiciary is entirely independent and is not influenced in any way by the executive branch of government,” according to a statement e-mailed by the Foreign Ministry.
Anthony Skinner, director for Middle East and North Africa at U.K.-based political risk consultancy Maplecroft, said the sentences show that “the authorities currently have no intention to seek reconciliation with the Muslim Brotherhood –- rather, the security establishment is continuing to act with an iron fist.”
In tandem with the campaign against the Brotherhood, security forces are also carrying out operations in the Sinai peninsula against militants who have escalated attacks since Mursi’s removal.
The violence has exacerbated the turmoil that has hurt the economy and kept tourists and investors away since a popular uprising ended Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year rule.
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