Egyptian court upholds death sentences for 75 people over 2013 demonstration

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie stands behind bars while on trial in February 2015.

(CNN) — An Egyptian court on Saturday issued its final verdict upholding death sentences against 75 Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters — including journalists — for their participation in protests following the 2013 ouster of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsy.

The mass trial has been widely condemned by human rights organizations, with Amnesty International calling it a “grotesque parody of justice.”

The 739 defendants, who included members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were arrested and tried for participating in a monthlong sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares in Cairo to protest the removal of Morsy.

The protest culminated in mass violence, when Egyptian security forces — under the command of now-President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi — attempted to clear thousands of demonstrators by using automatic weapons, armored personnel carriers and military bulldozers. Hundreds of people were killed.

Among those sentenced to death Saturday at the Cairo Criminal Court were prominent Muslim Brotherhood members Essam El-Erian, Mohamed Beltagy, Abdel-Rahman al-Bar and Osama Yassin. Of the 75 people, 44 are in jail and 31 are on the run.

Although the verdict is considered final, the defendants can still appeal.

Another 56 defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, including Mohamed Badie, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.

About 200 defendants were sentenced to five years behind bars, among them photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan. As the judge finished reading their verdict, they cheered, as they have already served their time in detention and expect to be released soon.

“Those who were sentenced to five years will be released, but according to the sentence, they will remain for another five years under surveillance,” Mohamed Wahid, one of the defendant’s lawyers, told CNN.

Shawkan, 31, was arrested on August 14, 2013, while taking pictures of security forces dispersing the Rabaa sit-in. He was awarded the Press Freedom Prize by the United Nations cultural agency UNESCO in April.

The government’s actions in dispersing the Rabaa Adawiya square protest were widely condemned by international rights organizations. At least 817 people were killed in the violence, a 2014 report by Human Rights Watch found.

Analysis: Dream of freedom ‘dead and buried’

The verdict is confirmation, if any were needed, that the dream of freedom in Egypt, which sent millions into the streets in January 2011, is dead and buried, said CNN’s senior international correspondent Ben Wedeman. The trial, like most in Egypt, was a farce.

The hope and optimism of the Arab Spring evaporated long ago, he said. And many now look back wistfully on the paternalistic, corrupt, sometimes-brutal presidency of former President Hosni Mubarak as “the good old days.”

Back then, the Muslim Brotherhood, many leaders of which have now been sentenced to death, operated with relative freedom, though the organization was officially banned under Mubarak, Wedeman said.

The Brotherhood’s Cairo headquarters, in an apartment building on the leafy island of Manyal in the middle of the Nile, didn’t have a sign on the door. But anyone could call, make appointments, come for interviews. There was nothing hush-hush about it.

Since then, Sisi’s government has labeled the Brotherhood a “terrorist” group, and its members have been arrested, pushed underground or driven into exile.

Through the unrelenting crackdown, Sisi has indeed turned some in the Brotherhood into terrorists who have joined, for example, the ISIS affiliate in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, Wedeman said.

Morsy, a former Brotherhood leader who was the country’s first democratically elected president following the fall of Mubarak, remains in prison awaiting a retrial. Osama Morsy, his son, was sentenced Saturday to 10 years in prison.

Another 360 defendants were sentenced to 15 years in prison. No one was found innocent.

Of the accused, 315 are jailed and 419 are fugitives. Charges were dropped against five defendants who died.

Meanwhile, what has changed in the Arab world, Wedeman said, is that the desire for greater political freedom, while not erased, has been superseded for many by a much more simple and pressing demand for better — or even just basic — public services.

In the past week, thousands of Iraqis in Basra protested night after night for clean drinking water, electricity and jobs.

Governments can try to convince or coerce their constituencies into thinking freedom and democracy are not worth the disorder that often accompanies them. In that, Sisi’s government has succeeded, Wedeman said.

But it’s a whole different matter to convince people they can live with little food, undrinkable water, unreliable electricity and little work. The Iraqi government is finding that out now.

Egypt — with a population of around 90 million, an inefficient bureaucracy and an economy set up to favor the military — is not immune, he said.

US military aid released

The Trump administration in July released $195 million in military aid to Egypt — funds that had been previously withheld due to concerns over the country’s human rights record.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has since authorized the release of a further $1.2 billion in US military assistance to Egypt, a US State Department spokesperson said.

“We have serious concerns about the human rights situation in Egypt, and we will continue to raise these concerns with Egyptian officials, including at the senior-most levels of the Egyptian government,” the spokesperson said. “At the same time, strengthened security cooperation with Egypt is important to US national security.”

Saturday’s verdict upholds a July 28 ruling, in which 75 defendants were referred to the Grand Mufti in what’s considered a preliminary death sentence. They included senior members of the group such as El-Erian, Beltagy and al-Bar.

Egypt requires that courts refer death sentences to the Grand Mufti to give a non-binding opinion to make sure the penalty is in line with the Islamic Sharia.