CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Tuesday confirmed the death sentence of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi over the mass 2011 prison break that eventually brought him to power, making him the first leader in Egypt’s modern history to potentially face execution.
While this is the first death sentence for Morsi, courts have handed out hundreds of similar sentences against Islamists in mass trials since his 2013 overthrow and a mass crackdown on dissent in Egypt.
The ruling, which will be automatically reviewed by Egypt’s highest appeals court, brought no immediate outcry on the streets as thousands remain imprisoned, though the country faces threats from Islamic extremists, including an affiliate of the Islamic State group.
It is not clear if Morsi will be executed. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the military’s ouster of Morsi, repeatedly has defended the independence of the judiciary, though their mass rulings have faced international criticism.
Meanwhile, former autocrat Hosni Mubarak, overthrown in Egypt’s 2011 revolt and detained since, has seen a number of the cases against him dropped. Mubarak now only faces a November retrial on charges over the killings of protesters after initially receiving a life sentence.
Morsi, who served a year as Egypt’s first freely elected president, appeared in court Tuesday in a blue prison uniform, enclosed in a cage separate from other defendants held in a glass-covered cage covered in mesh wire. He first raised his arms to cameras and those in the courtroom. He listened to the verdict with a slight smile, but said nothing.
Judge Shaaban al-Shami, who led a panel of three judges, issued the ruling after he consulted with Egypt’s Mufti, a religious authority affiliated with the judiciary. The Mufti’s opinion must be sought in all capital punishment cases.
“The court panel has unanimously agreed that there is no room for leniency or mercy for the defendants,” al-Shami said. He said the Mufti sanctioned the death sentences under crimes of “haraba,” an Islamic term for banditry, bloodshed and waging war on God and society.
The judge also confirmed death sentences for five other imprisoned leading members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohammed Badie, the group’s leader, and Saad el-Katatni, the head of its short-lived political party. Another 21 imprisoned defendants received life sentences in the case, which in Egypt is equivalent to 25 years in prison. Another 93 defendants were tried in absentia and sentenced to death, though they will be automatically retried once they are in custody.
Defendants in the case were found guilty of conspiring and attempting to kill police officers in the mass breakout targeting three Egyptian prisons, enabling some 20,000 inmates to flee, causing chaos in Egypt and breaching its borders with the Gaza Strip. Al-Shami said the prison break received help from the Palestinian Hamas movement, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Sinai militants.
The breakout freed Morsi, who had been arrested soon after the 2011 protests started. He later rode on the Brotherhood’s popularity among conservatives and Islamists in Egypt to become the country’s president in 2012. Morsi is already serving a 20-year sentence for his part in the killings in 2012 of protesters outside his palace when he was still president.
Earlier Tuesday, the same judge sentenced Morsi to life in prison over charges of conspiring with foreign groups, including Hamas. That sentence also can be appealed. Al-Shami also confirmed death sentences against 16 other Islamists in that case, including three jailed senior Brotherhood members. The other 13 were tried in absentia. Morsi was among 17 defendants sentenced to life in prison in that case.
Morsi’s supporters quickly criticized the decision, calling it the “nail in the coffin for democracy in Egypt.”
“This cannot be ignored any longer,” said Amr Darrag, a former minister under Morsi who is now in self-imposed exile. “We call the international community to realize how grossly wrong it is to support such a bloody regime.”
Another former minister in exile, Yehia Hamed, said the verdicts and the crackdown on dissent are likely to increase the violence already plaguing Egypt.
“We reject all violent means of protest,” Hamed said. “However, (el-Sissi) is forcing many within Egypt to believe violence is the only way to counter his regime.”
Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country’s leadership has supported the Brotherhood, said the sentences against Morsi would be a test for Western governments who have supported Egypt since 2013 despite the crackdown.
“We shall see what they will do, faced with the leader of a political movement which never engaged in violence, being forced to walk toward execution,” Davutoglu said.
The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists called on Egyptian authorities to end the imposition of mass death sentences in “grossly unfair” trials.
“Egyptian judges are once again contributing to egregious violations of the right to life instead of protecting against, preventing and punishing arbitrary deprivation of life,” said Said Benarbia, director of the commission’s Middle East and North Africa program.
Egyptian rights lawyer Nasser Amin, a member of the state-sanctioned National Council for Human Rights, said he expected Morsi’s appeals to go on for a couple of years before a final verdict is issued. However, he lamented the mass death sentences issued in recent months, which by some estimates number 1,500. In 2010, there were no more than 93 death sentences issued, all in criminal cases, he said.
“The recent verdicts have greatly harmed Egypt’s established and stable judiciary,” Amin said.
During a recent trip to Germany, el-Sissi went to great length to defend the death penalty imposed against Morsi. Asked if he would pardon Morsi, he said: “Let every measure or issue be addressed in the right time.”
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