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In Egypt, Defendants Are Being Tried By The Hundreds

Egypt's legal system has already been under scrutiny with a raft of high-profile cases that include two ousted presidents and scores of activists. And a new wave of international criticism is building after an Egyptian court sentenced 529 men to death after a two-day trial.

The judge sentenced the men for the killing of a police officer. They were also charged with arson, inciting violence and other crimes in the province of Minya, just south of Cairo.

The U.N. human rights office said the mass death sentences were "unprecedented in recent history." The U.S. State Department called it "unconscionable" and a "flagrant disregard for basic standards of justice."

Amnesty International called the decision "grotesque" and viewed it as part of an unprecedented government crackdown that has put thousands behind bars. Thousands have also been killed, according to groups monitoring the violence.

Many of the defendants are not in custody and were tried in absentia. The sentences could be overturned. They were referred to the country's top Islamic jurist for consideration, but he has often upheld death sentences.

On Tuesday, there was another mass trial of nearly 700 people with the same judge. The trial opened and was adjourned with Judge Saeed Youssef El Gazar vowing to issue a ruling on April 28, even though defense lawyers boycotted the proceedings in protest.

The Death Penalty In Egypt

Egypt is one of about 40 countries worldwide that has the death penalty, and the method of execution is hanging.

Egypt sentenced about 709 people to death from 1981 to 2000. Of that number, 248 were actually executed, according to estimates by Death Penalty Worldwide, an online database.

The Egyptian case comes amid the military-backed government's sweeping moves against Islamist opposition; these defendants are accused of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The movement supports Mohammed Morsi, the ousted president whose unpopular government was toppled in a coup — with public support — last July. The Brotherhood has since been banned and deemed a terrorist organization. Defense lawyers claim many of those accused of belonging to the Brotherhood are not linked to the group.

The government blames the movement for orchestrating violence, and its followers are being arrested in broad sweeps. Much of the leadership, including Morsi, is in jail, but supporters continue to protest and publicly denounce violence.

The crackdown now includes others who voice dissent, including secular activists who have been arrested and accused of being in the Brotherhood.

Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty International, said Monday's ruling could be the largest mass death sentence in modern history.

Amnesty International says that the last comparable case was in Bangladesh last year, when 152 soldiers were sentenced to death over a border guard mutiny.

Some Support The Mass Sentences

Not everyone in Egypt was appalled by this week's sentencing. Some local television personalities defended the decision on privately owned channels that are partisan to the state.

Ahmed Moussa, the host of a show called On My Responsibility saluted the "fairness" of the justice system and responded to critics by saying, "May they be 10,000, 20,000, not 500. We're not sad; we are happy."

Meanwhile, the Justice Ministry issued a statement underscoring that the death sentences can be appealed. Legal experts say that harsh verdicts handed out by criminal courts are often overturned on appeal.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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