April 28 (Bloomberg) -- Egyptian courts sentenced the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader and hundreds of alleged supporters to death and banned a prominent activist group, reinforcing charges the army-backed government is using the judiciary to crack down on opponents.
A court in the southern province of Minya handed out death sentences today to the Brotherhood’s General Guide, Mohammed Badie, and 682 others. The sentences aren’t final, and will be reviewed by religious authorities. The same court had issued more than 500 death sentences to Brotherhood supporters last month, and commuted most of those to life imprisonment today, while affirming 37 of them, state media reported.
“The judiciary is becoming a political tool,” Ziad Akl, a senior researcher at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said by phone. “The state’s political will is to not directly crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood as much as to use different state institutions, for example the judiciary, to limit the Brotherhood’s political existence.”
Another court banned the activities of the 6th of April youth movement, a main force behind the uprising that toppled Mubarak, after allegations that the group’s actions “sully the image of the Egyptian state,” Ahram Gate news website reported.
The movement’s co-founder, Ahmed Maher, and other activists are already serving prison sentences in what government critics say is a sign the crackdown has expanded beyond Islamists to stifle all dissent.
Government officials say the judiciary is independent and that all convictions result from legal, not political, reasons.
Authorities embarked upon a campaign against the Brotherhood after the army led the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July. Security forces have killed hundreds of Mursi’s supporters, and he and many Brotherhood leaders face multiple trials.
The Brotherhood said in an e-mailed statement that the latests sentences show Egypt’s military leadership “is adamant on crushing all voices of peaceful dissent and expression.”
The unrest has exacerbated the turmoil that has hurt the economy and kept tourists and investors away since the 2011 uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s rule.
Today’s moves may fuel tensions ahead of next month’s presidential elections, where the front-runner is former Defense Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Seesi, who led Mursi’s ouster after days of mass protests against him.
“These rulings are meaningless,” Mohamed el-Damaty, a member of the legal team defending Brotherhood leaders in a separate trial, told Al Jazeera television. He said lawyers weren’t given an adequate opportunity to defend their clients, who were convicted on charges of violence and murder during unrest in the south.
“Egypt’s judiciary risks becoming just another part of the authorities’ repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International, said in a statement.
Egypt’s authorities, who are also battling militants in Sinai, say they are fighting a war on terror and blame the Brotherhood for much of the violence that has intensified since Mursi’s ejection from office.
The Brotherhood denies the allegation and says it is committed to peaceful protests against Mursi’s removal. A pro-Mursi alliance said yesterday that it would boycott next month’s presidential race.
To contact the reporter on this story: Mariam Fam in Cairo at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at email@example.com Mark Williams, Ben Holland