By Stephen Kalin
An Egyptian court on Saturday sought the death penalty for former president Mohamed Mursi and 106 other supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in connection with a mass jail break in 2011.
Mursi and his fellow defendants, including the Brotherhood’s top leader, Mohamed Badie, were convicted for killing and kidnapping policemen, attacking police facilities and breaking out of jail during the 2011 uprising against Hosni Mubarak.
The request prompted immediate condemnations from the Brotherhood, from Amnesty International and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
The court, expected to make a final ruling on June 2, also sought capital punishment in a separate case for Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater and 15 others for conspiring with foreign militant groups against Egypt.
The rulings, like all capital sentences, will be referred to Egypt’s top religious authority, Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, for an opinion before any executions can take place. His opinion is not legally binding.
Mursi can appeal the verdict, although he has said the court is not legitimate, describing all legal proceedings against him as part of what he calls a coup staged by former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2013.
Many other defendants are on the run.
The Brotherhood, an Islamist movement, propelled Mursi to election victory in 2012 following Mubarak’s ousting but was driven underground after the army ousted the Islamist leader a year later following mass protests against his rule.
Mursi stood defiant in a court cage on Saturday wearing a blue prison outfit. He was smiling and pumping his fists in the air even as judge Shaaban al-Shami read out the sentences.
Some other defendants, who were held in a courtroom cage separate from Mursi, flashed a four-finger salute symbolising resistance to the state’s crackdown on Islamists. From behind soundproof glass, they chanted: “Down with military rule!”
Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, the influential Qatar-based Muslim cleric, was among those sentenced to death in the prison-break case.
Muslim Brotherhood official Amr Darrag condemned the court’s decision and called on the international community to take action.
“This is a political verdict and represents a murder crime that is about to be committed, and it should be stopped by the international community,” Darrag, co-founder of the dissolved Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Brotherhood, told Reuters in Istanbul.
The party said in an online statement the ruling “opened all options to rid the country of this gang which seized power by force”. It did not elaborate.
Amnesty International called the court decision “a charade based on null and void procedures” and demanded Mursi’s release or retrial in a civilian court.
Erdogan criticised Egypt over the decision and accused its western allies of hypocrisy, the state-run Anatolian news agency reported. “While the West is abolishing the death penalty, they are just watching the continuation of death sentences in Egypt. They don’t do anything about it,” it quoted him as saying.
Human rights groups have accused Egyptian authorities of widespread abuses in a crackdown on Brotherhood supporters as well as secular activists, allegations they deny.
Western diplomats say Egyptian officials have acknowledged it could be political suicide to execute Mursi and risk turning him into a martyr as has happened with Brotherhood leaders in previous crackdowns.
The Brotherhood, the oldest Islamist group in the Middle East, has survived decades of repression and maintained popular support through its charities.
In what they call “the biggest case of conspiracy in the history of Egypt”, prosecutors say the Brotherhood planned to send “elements” to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip for military training by Lebanon’s Hezbollah group and Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
Upon their return, they would join forces with militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula, the Egyptian territory that borders Israel to the east, prosecutors alleged.
Fawzi Barhoum, spokesman for Palestinian Hamas group, condemned the ruling against Mursi and dozens of Palestinians, calling it “a crime against the Palestinian people”.
The Brotherhood also rejects the allegations, saying it is a peaceful organisation with no links to violence.
Islamic militant groups have stepped up bombing and shooting attacks on security forces since Mursi’s fall, killing hundreds.
The state, which has declared the Brotherhood a terrorist group, has killed about 1,000 of its members on the streets and jailed thousands, according to human rights groups.