CAIRO: Several countries and international organizations issued statements Tuesday to express deep concern over what many described as an “unprecedented” court ruling.
On Monday, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death and acquitted 17 others on charges of attacking a police station and killing its deputy head. More than three quarters of the defendants were tried in absentia, according to media reports.
The United Nations human rights office said in a statement Tuesday the death penalty breaches international human rights law.
“The death sentence in this case is unprecedented in recent history,” Rupert Colville, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at a press briefing in Geneva, according to a press release.
Colville said a death sentence may be imposed for the crime of murder only after providing “the highest level of respect for fair trial and due process standards.” He slammed the verdict for being issued after two days of trial, according to the statement.
“Membership of a political group or participation in demonstrations certainly does not meet the threshold of ‘most serious crimes’,” he added, citing the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Egypt’s Ministry of Justice declined to comment on the sentences, stating in a Tuesday statement that one of the fundamental principles of any democratic system is the separation of powers, and that the judiciary is independent.
The ministry added that the defendants have the right to appeal the ruling.
High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton said in a statement Tuesday she received the court ruling with “utmost concern.”
“Notwithstanding the serious nature of the crimes for which they were convicted, capital punishment can never be justified,” Ashton added.
Ashton described the death penalty as “cruel and inhumane,” and called on Egypt to ensure the defendants’ rights to a fair and timely trial based on “clear charges.”
U.S. Department of State Deputy Spokesperson Marie Harf said on Monday that over half of defendants were sentenced in absentia and can appeal the ruling, but “it does not seem possible that a fair review of evidence and testimony consistent with international standards could be accomplished with over 529 defendants in a two day trial.”
“It sort of defies logic,” Harf added in a statement.
Harf urged Egypt to ensure fair proceedings for the defendants, adding that politically motivated arrests, detention and conviction will move Egypt’s democracy backward.
Human Rights Watch said the prosecution did not submit evidence implicating any individual defendant, despite compiling significant evidence during its investigation.
Sarah Leah Whiston, director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, blamed the court in a statement for preventing defense lawyers from presenting their case or from calling witnesses.
“It’s shocking ,”she said, adding that the court issued sentences without giving defendants “any meaningful opportunity to defend themselves.”
Whiston said the verdict violates the most basic foundations of a fair trial.
“These death sentences should be immediately quashed,” she said.
Of the defendants, 291 are at large, 185 had been released pending investigation, 111 are in detention and 58 are in prison, Human Rights Watch said in its statement.
One of the defense lawyers told Human Rights Watch officials during the first session on March 22 that the judge brought the session to a close before completing “customary opening procedures,” after an argument between the judge and defense lawyers at the court room, according to the Associated Press.
“We are in exceptional circumstances; we don’t have time to summon each and every defendant,” a judicial official involved in the case was quoted as saying to the AP.
“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 source added.
Whiston said that the verdict compounded the fact that “no Egyptian court has even questioned a single police officer for the killing of well over 1,000 since July 3.”
She added the trial represents a “serious miscarriage of justice.”
Amnesty International said in a Monday statement that the mass sentences represent a “grotesque example of the shortcomings and the selective nature of Egypt’s justice system.”
It was the largest single batch of death sentences handed down in recent years anywhere in the world, the Amnesty statement said.
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in a Tuesday statement blasted the court ruling as violating international human rights standards.
Steinmeier called upon Egypt to scrap the court ruling and ensure a fair trial for the defendants, adding that such verdicts deepen political divisions and lead to instability.
He added that the country needs an inclusive political process for national reconciliation.
The court ruling is pending the approval of the Grand Mufti and the final ruling will be announced on April 28, according to CNN.
Human rights activist Nagad El-Borai told The Cairo Post the court violated the defendants’ right to a defense.
“The right to justice is a human right,” Borai said.