An Egyptian criminal court affirmed a death sentence against former President Mohamed Mursi, a ruling that risks sparking more violence in a country grappling with unrest since his ouster two years ago.
The court stood by its May 16 preliminary verdict against Mursi, the country’s first freely elected civilian president, after it was ratified by Egypt’s top religious authority. The Islamist politician was convicted in connection with a prison break during the 2011 revolt that toppled his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak. The court also sentenced him to life in prison in an espionage case. Both rulings can be appealed.
As the verdict was being read out, Muslim Brotherhood members also standing trial smiled and waved four fingers, a reference to their protest camp where hundreds were killed during a crackdown in August 2013, just after Mursi’s removal by the army. His initial sentence triggered attacks that left three judges dead and drew international condemnation, including from the U.S. and the European Union.
“Egypt is walking down a dangerous road,” said Negad El Borai, a lawyer and the former secretary general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. “These rulings can only result in more violence, more polarization.”
While the death sentence may not be carried out, President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi is unlikely to grant a pardon “given the fierce vilification of the Brotherhood in the media,” El Borai said. “The public may not accept it.”
Other top Muslim Brotherhood leaders standing trial, including its Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and his deputy Khairat el-Shater, were handed death sentences.
Mursi was toppled after mass protests against his one-year rule. Egyptian judges have since sentenced hundreds of Islamists to death as the government clamped down on political Islam.
Preceding the verdict, the presiding judge unleashed a lengthy tirade against the Brotherhood and what he described as efforts to undermine Egypt’s unity.
The group “conspired with foreign entities to achieve its devilish goals under the guise of religion,” and Mursi held on to power “at the expense of divisions between the sons of the country,” he said.
Among those sentenced to death on Tuesday is Emad Shahin, a visiting professor of political science at Georgetown University, who left Egypt in January 2014 and never went back. He was among those tried for espionage but says he was targeted for his opposition to El-Sisi’s government.
Authoritarian rulers “get concerned about their image, criticism makes them look vulnerable, and they cannot tolerate this,” he said.
El-Sisi defended the judiciary in a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on June 3, saying most of the rulings were only preliminary. He also said that most of the death sentences were awarded in absentia and would be reversed once the accused appear in court.
Mursi has been charged in multiple cases. In April, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison in connection with violence near the presidential palace during a protest against his rule. He remains on trial for other charges including spying for Qatar.