The April 28 ruling in which an Egyptian judge, Saeed Youssef El Gazar, sentenced 683 people to death, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Badie, is the second such in just over a month, and follows a March 24 verdict in which 529 people were sentenced to death in another blanket decision. The judge later commuted 492 of those sentences to life imprisonment. The prosecutions were brought over the killings of policemen in the southern province of Minya on August 14, 2013, the day on which the police killed hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo. Observers, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have fiercely criticised both trials; the proceedings lasted only a few hours in all, and the judge barred all defence evidence. The defence lawyers are bewildered; one says 60 per cent of the defendants, who include teachers and doctors, have evidence to show that they were not even present when the police station was attacked, and that he was given 3,500 pages of documents only 15 minutes before the trial. Another, who has 6,000 pages of case material, says the judge cannot possibly have read the papers in the time he took to reach the verdicts. Many of the defendants insist they are not supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood but were reported to the police by people acting on personal agendas. Relatives of those sentenced, some of whom are being held incommunicado 700 km from their homes, are distraught.

All the sentences will be appealed before the country’s highest Islamic authority, the Grand Mufti; a decision is expected in June. The trials, however, have focussed international attention on the Egyptian judicial process and on the military junta which overthrew the elected President, Mohamed Morsy, in July 2013. Domestic observers say the judicial system is so bad that fairness — of a sort — tends to appear only at the appeal stage. Secondly, the Cairo regime depends heavily on aid from Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait, all of which are very hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood; the three countries have given Cairo $12 billion in recent years. Members of the U.S. Congress have started moves to block some of Washington’s $1.5 billion annual aid to Egypt, but the Obama administration has cleared the delivery of attack helicopters to it. The sentences have been handed down irrespective of the defendants’ faith or political background, if any; that implies strongly that Acting President Adly Mansour’s military-dominated regime intends to crush all dissent. For all Egyptians, not only those who in January 2011 challenged and then ended Hosni Mubarak’s brutal 30-year rule, this amounts to a bitter betrayal.

More In: Editorial | Opinion