By The Editorial Board
March 24, 2014
Egypt has been on an alarming downward spiral ever since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Even so, the court verdict on Monday that condemned 529 Islamists to death for the killing of a single police officer last summer was a uniquely shocking example of a judicial system run amok.
The verdict could well be overturned on appeal. Nevertheless, it represents an outrageous escalation of the military-led government’s ruthless crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist supporters of its ally, Mohamed Morsi. It will further radicalize the group’s members. And it will almost surely worsen instability in one of the Arab world’s most important countries.
There is no way that the proceeding can be seen as anything other than a show trial with a preordained political outcome. It was clearly intended to intimidate anyone who dares to challenge the military or shows sympathy for the Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi, who was elected president in 2012 in a democratic election and then ousted in a military coup last summer.
According to legal experts, the verdict was the largest mass sentencing in modern Egyptian history. It followed a trial that lasted little more than two days — not enough time to make a case against even a single person, much less 529 people, charged with murder for the killing of a police officer in rioting that followed Mr. Morsi’s ouster.
On the face of it, convicting so many people in one death is preposterous. The fact that 16 of those charged were acquitted does not legitimize the process in the least. Only 123 defendants were in the courtroom; the rest were either released, out on bail or on the run.
It is impossible to know whether the court in the city of Minya where the verdicts were handed down was caught up in the animosity against Mr. Morsi and his supporters that has swept Egypt since his overthrow or whether the court was acting on directions from security officials. Either way, the case lays bare a prejudicial system that has been quick to punish Mr. Morsi’s supporters while ignoring gross human rights violations by the military-led government that replaced him.
Among these violations were the shooting of more than 1,000 Egyptians who protested the coup, and the subsequent arrest of thousands more. These incidents, in turn, triggered a backlash by Morsi supporters against police around the country. The backlash included violent protests in Minya last year, including the killing of the police officer that led to the trial.
Governments, of course, have a duty to protect their citizens and bring criminals to justice. But this trial had all the makings of a vendetta, not a fair and rigorous judgment. Even if the verdict is overturned on appeal, as lawyers predict, the process is illegitimate and perpetuates the government’s transparent effort to crush the Brotherhood. Mr. Morsi’s mistakes, authoritarian ways and efforts to monopolize power now seem almost modest compared with the official brutality of his successors.
The verdict should also raise alarms about the fate of other prisoners, including several journalists for the pan-Arab news channel Al Jazeera, whose trial is underway in Cairo, as well as 600 other defendants, whose mass trial is set to begin on Tuesday. The possibility that all could be faced with death sentences, a barbaric and indefensible punishment, is chilling.
Inexplicably, the United States and Britain issued separate, similarly weak statements, which said that they were “deeply concerned” about the death sentences. That’s unlikely to have much effect on Egypt’s military and a population that largely seems willing to tolerate its abuses.