(Transcript from World News Radio)
An Egyptian court has sentenced 683 people to death, in the latest mass trial over last year’s deadly riots.
The alleged Islamists include the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie.
The same court has overturned all but 37 of the 529 death sentences it handed down last month – commuting most to life in prison.
The rulings have sparked heightened international scrutiny of Egypt’s fledgling democracy in the lead up to next month’s Presidential elections.
Brianna Roberts reports.
It reportedly took less than eight minutes for the judge to hand-down the verdict condemning more than 680 people to death.
Prosecutors say the defendants are members of the Muslim Brotherhood group accused killing two police officers during violence last August, following the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi.
But many of the defendants say they were not present during the attacks, not supporters of the Brotherhood, and in some cases not even in the Minya province, at the time the attack took place.
Michael Hayworth from Amnesty International says carrying out the death sentences would be tantamount to mass murder.
“This is mass state-sanctioned killing. It shouldn’t be acceptable. It can’t be acceptable to the international community. It can’t be acceptable to Egypt’s partners in trade and aid, and it can’t be acceptable to everyday people like you and me.”
The death sentences will now be referred to Egypt’s Grand Mufti, a senior Muslim cleric, for his opinion.
The Mufti’s opinion is not legally-binding and can be ignored by the court.
But there are serious doubts over whether an execution of this scale would actually be carried out.
President of the Islamic Egyptian Society of NSW Hossam Ibrahim believes the ruling is politically-motivated.
“This is just a political decision.. They made it up to give the people still protesting on the streets more warning, and just to tell them we don’t have any limits, so everyone is under the impression that if you go to any opposition against what’s going on in Egypt.. you will be.. you might have that kind of crazy decision as well.”
On the same day, the court handed down the death sentences for hundreds of people labelled pro-Morsi, it also banned a group which rejected the Brotherhood and rallied against Mr Morsi.
Mr Ibrahim believes outlawing of the April 6 Islamic group shows the court is trying to silence all dissent in the lead up to next month’s elections.
He says Egyptians on both sides of the political spectrum are concerned about any move to restrict freedom.
“I’ve got many many many friends they would agree with what’s happening in July, but now the picture is more clear that this is what we didn’t fight for, and that things are going backwards. This is not what we dreamed for.”
However, ANU Professor and Former Australian ambassador to Egypt, Dr Bob Bowker says he’s wary about reading political motivations into the decision.
“Well there’s a great deal of speculation about what role this individual judge is playing, as distinct from the judicial system as a whole, and it could be that we are seeing a carriage of justice in the minds of that particular judicial official, rather than it being a reflection of any wider government policy or political approach. We just don’t know.”
Human rights groups like Amnesty say what is clear is that any decision to follow through with an exection of this scale would be unprecedented and spark widespread international outcry..
Michael Hayworth says Australia has a role to play in urging the Egyptian government to ensure people in Egypt are given a fair hearing.
“Before Egypt takes 683 men to the gallows. The time is now. We need the people in the international community to be saying to Egypt that this isnt acceptable. Because the one thing people who are under these sorts of conditions, the one thing that people who get sentenced to death always say say all the time is ‘please don’t forget us.. please don’t let them sweep us under the carpet so we become just another statistic in a report. Please help us fight for our lives”