CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court said on Saturday it would transfer the cases of 75 people convicted of security-related offences, including senior Muslim Brotherhood figures, to Egypt’s top religious authority to decide whether they should be sentenced to death.
They are among more than 700 people accused or convicted of illegal protest or murder over a 2013 sit-in that ended in the deaths of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters and dozens of police when security forces broke it up violently. Those convicted face potential sentences ranging up to life in prison and execution.
Since President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power in 2014, authorities have justified a crackdown on dissent and freedoms as being directed at terrorists and saboteurs trying to undermine the state. Death sentences have been handed down to hundreds of his political opponents on charges such as belonging to an illegal organisation or planning to carry out an attack.
The dispersal of the sit-in at Rabaa Adawiya square in August 2013 came weeks after Sisi, as military chief, ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi after protests against Brotherhood rule.
Rights groups have criticised the trial of so many people in the same case, saying they include journalists and many peaceful protesters.
Egyptian law requires any capital sentence to be referred to Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, Egypt’s highest Islamic legal official, for an opinion before executions can take place.
The 75 cases referred to the Mufti include those of senior Brotherhood leaders Essam al-Erian and Mohamed Beltagi and prominent Islamist preachers Safwat Higazi and Wagdi Ghoneim, judicial sources said. Forty-four of the accused are in prison awaiting their sentence, and 31 have been tried in absentia.
The Mufti’s decision is not legally binding, but is rarely ignored by the courts. In 2014 the Mufti rejected a death sentence proposed for the leader of the outlawed Brotherhood, Mohamed Badie, who is part of the same case.
Badie has since been sentenced to life in prison.
Amnesty International said on Saturday the trial was unfair, and that the accused had been denied the right to present an adequate defence.
“Egyptian authorities have never questioned or prosecuted any of the security force personnel who took part in the massacre,” it said in a statement.
Amnesty says more than 800 protesters were killed. The government has said many protesters were armed, and that 43 police were killed.
The final sentencing in the case is expected on Sept. 8, after the Mufti has given his ruling, judicial sources said.
Many death sentences issued under Sisi have not yet been carried out, but local rights groups say the number of executions has risen in recent years.
Sisi’s supporters say harsh measures are needed to ensure the stability needed to revive Egypt’s battered economy after the turmoil unleashed by the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
“We (Egyptians) need to get out of the rut we are in ... I want to do that for you,” Sisi said at a youth conference at Cairo University on Saturday as he promoted his new defence minister, Mohamed Zaki, to the rank of general.
Sisi said he was “saddened” by a recent but limited social media campaign calling for his departure.
Reporting by Haitham Borai, Ahmed Tolba, John Davison; Editing by Kevin Liffey