CAIRO >> An Egyptian court Monday sentenced to death nearly 530 suspected backers of ousted President Mohammed Morsi over a deadly attack on a police station, capping a swift, two-day mass trial in which defense attorneys were not allowed to present their case.
It was the largest single batch of death sentences in the world in recent years, Amnesty International said. The U.S. State Department said it “defies logic” that so many people could get a fair trial in just two sessions.
The verdicts by a court in the city of Minya are subject to appeal and are likely to be overturned.
But the outcome stunned human rights activists and raised fears that the rule of law is being swept away in the crackdown waged by the military-backed interim government against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood since his overthrow last summer.
The government is conducting a series of mass trials of Brotherhood supporters, some with hundreds of defendants.
“It turns the judiciary in Egypt from a tool for achieving justice into an instrument for taking revenge,” said Mohammed Zarie, a Cairo-based human rights lawyer.
Egypt’s Foreign Ministry brushed off the criticism, saying in a statement that the judiciary is “entirely independent and is not influenced in any way by the executive branch of government.”
The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, a claim it denies. Some 16,000 people have been arrested since Morsi’s ouster, including most of the group’s top leaders as well as large numbers swept up by police during pro-Morsi protests.
A judicial official involved in Monday’s case told The Associated Press that the swift and harsh verdicts were meant as a deterrent.
“Now no one would dare to think to attack a police station or a state institution after they saw death penalties falling on their group’s heads,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case.
He defended the mass trial, saying, “We are in exceptional circumstances. We don’t have time to summon each and every defendant, prove their presence and confirm who are their lawyers.”
He said he expected an appeals court to overturn the verdicts and order a retrial because defense lawyers were not given a chance to present their case — but he predicted a similar verdict.
The 545 defendants were charged with murder, attempted murder, joining an outlawed group aiming at toppling the regime and stealing government weapons in connection with the attack last August in the town of Matay, south of Cairo. The town’s deputy police chief, Mohammed al-Attar, was killed in the violence.
The bloodshed was part of nationwide rioting sparked when security forces stormed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo and killed over 600 people.
The state news agency and the judicial official said 528 defendants were found guilty and handed death sentences, while the rest were acquitted, though some officials put the number at 529 convicted.
All but around 150 of the defendants were tried in absentia and will get retrials if captured.
In the trial’s first session, on Saturday, the presiding judge, Said Youssef, angrily shouted down requests by defense lawyers for more time to review the prosecution’s case, Khaled el-Koumi, a lawyer representing 10 of the defendants, told the AP. Dozens of lawyers reacted by chanting slogans against the judge.
“We didn’t have the chance to say a word or to look at more than 3,000 pages of investigation to see what evidence they are talking about,” el-Koumi said.
On Monday, police and special forces encircled the building and barred defense attorneys from attending, said one of the lawyers, Yasser Zidan. The judge ordered the measures because of the disruptions during the previous session, Minya police said.
When the judge read the verdict, around 150 defendants, held in a courtroom cage, as is customary in Egyptian trials, screamed, “You butcher!” a senior official involved in courtroom security said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The death sentences must first be approved by Egypt’s mufti, the country’s top Islamic official — a step that is usually a formality. Once that happens, expected on April 28, the defense lawyers can file an appeal with a court in Cairo.
The Egyptian judicial official said the court did not need to establish that all those convicted were directly involved in the police official’s killing — only that they were involved in the attack on the station.
He said the evidence included 20 video clips showing the crowd beating the deputy chief with iron poles and a doctor smashing his head with an oxygen canister.
But one of those tried and sentenced in absentia, 21-year-old Sayyaf Gamal, said he was in Cairo at the time of the attack. Speaking by telephone from hiding, Gamal said the verdict is aimed at driving the Brotherhood into violence to justify an even heavier crackdown.
“They want to explode the situation,” he said.
In a statement, the Brotherhood called the verdict “shocking” and an indication that “the corrupt judiciary is being utilized by the coup commanders … to install a brutal regime.”
On Tuesday, a group of 683 defendants is set to go on trial in Minya over an attack on another police station. Among the defendants are the top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badei, and other senior figures.
“We are deeply concerned that the dozens of mass trials that are taking place … are similarly riddled with due process violations and will also result in outrageous sentences,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
But with authorities casting the arrests of Brotherhood supporters as part of a fight against terrorism, some members of the public strongly back the crackdown. On Monday, an announcer on state radio praised the latest verdicts for bringing “swift justice.”
Amin Fatouh, a Cairo resident, said: “Those who kill deserve death, just as the Quran says. These people have committed murder, and they must be killed in return.”
Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo