Today, an Egyptian court issued a verdict sentencing 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death. It is the largest mass death penalty verdict issued in the country’s history.
Additionally, 700 more members – including the Brotherhood’s leader – were put on trial for charges that included murder.
NPR’s Cairo correspondent Leila Fadel joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the mass sentencing.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Today, more than 680 Egyptians, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi, were judged in a mass trial. Yesterday, the same judge issued the biggest mass death penalty sentence in the country's history - for 529 other Egyptians, all of them convicted in the murder of one policeman.
Egypt is holding a series of mass trials after deposing both Morsi and the man he replaced, longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. We wanted to find out more from NPR's Cairo Correspondent Leila Fadel. Leila, what's going on? Two days of mass trials, over a thousand people. Remind us what this is about.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, basically these are men that are accused of being supporters of the ousted Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that really was in power here in Egypt until the summer. And now human rights groups are saying this is basically legal massacre, 529 people sentenced to death on the second day of their trial. No defense allowed. The day of the trial itself, the lawyers were barred from the session. And the judge issued a death sentence to 529 people in a span of 45 minutes, and this is unprecedented in Egyptian history.
YOUNG: And remind us too. They're accused of the death of one policeman in protests?
FADEL: That's right. This is in connection to incidents over the summer, during the time of the infamous dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo where hundreds of people died. At that time, police stations were attacked, churches were attacked in this area of Minya, which is south of Cairo, and a policeman died. So they are charged with inciting violence, arson, and the death of this one policeman. And they're alleged to be all Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The lawyers say many were arbitrarily arrested, many not even sympathetic to the Brotherhood.
YOUNG: And how did it go in the courtroom? Are they all there? What - how is it working?
FADEL: Yeah. Well, most of these men actually were convicted in absentia, meaning that they're either out of the country, on the run, or haven't been detained. About, the lawyers say, between 120 and 130 were actually present. But when the sentencing came down, most weren't even in the courtroom. The lawyers, like I said, were barred from the courtroom that day, the ones that we spoke to.
And this is part of really a wider crackdown that has been going on since July. We're seeing mass arrests constantly, mass trials like this one, not as severe sentencing, but mass trials of 200, 100, 300 people being sentenced to jail time.
YOUNG: Well, so we have the two separate roundups. We had the 520 defendants who were convicted of murder of one policeman, and then we had the second mass trial of over 683 suspected Islamist supporters of the ousted president and the ousted Muslim Brotherhood government. That verdict, we understand, is going to be issued on April 28. But are either expected to stand?
FADEL: Well, that's the question, really. The justice ministry did issue a statement saying, of course, that these have to be reviewed by the top jurists in the country, the mufti here. And if he approves, then the death sentences can be implemented. But then there's a long appeals process. And often when you see really severe punishments being given by the criminal courts, they will be overturned on appeal. So we will likely, it's possible, see these death sentences be overturned on appeal.
But the fact that it happened at all is quite shocking to the international community. But also here in Egypt, the lack of sympathy among some is also quite shocking. We're seeing television hosts on TV yesterday and today saying, you know, kill more of them. We need more death sentences. This is the way to deal with unrest. This is the way to deal with the Brotherhood, which is now deemed a terrorist organization in Egypt, by sentencing them to death, getting rid of them.
YOUNG: Well, we're reminded that before Morsi was overthrown, Hosni Mubarak was overthrown by secular people who stood with more Islamist people. And we're understanding now that those same people are backing away from the Islamists because of how much more Islamist the second government - Morsi's government became.
FADEL: In some ways. I mean the president, Mohamed Morsi, who was ousted and now standing trial, he was elected freely and fairly here in Egypt. But he didn't lead in the way that people really wanted him to. He didn't fix the economy. People's lives didn't get better. And then on top of that, this was an Islamist organization that many people don't trust. And they were worried that he would take it into a direction of religiosity rather than democracy - or a theocracy rather than democracy.
And so many people turned on him for a plethora of reasons, some saying he betrayed the revolution by not reforming the system, others saying he was trying to make it a kalifet(ph), and others saying, well, we elected you to fix our problems, i.e., I want a job, I want to be able to feed my family, and you're not doing that. And so he was ousted. And a lot of people in Egypt celebrated that.
But now, months later with this crackdown widening from just Muslim Brotherhood supporters to really any voices of dissent, we're starting to see people question what is going on here. But still, the military here, which backs the government, the interim government, is very popular. And people trust them. They want stability. After three years of tumult, they want something different. And it might not be democracy. Maybe it's this path.
YOUNG: Well, Leila Fadel, one last question. Alongside these mass trials, there are trials of journalists. Where are we there?
FADEL: Yesterday was the third session of a trial of Al Jazeera English journalists. It's caused international outcry. They're being tried along with others, young students who were arrested. And, in that case, we saw Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed - the three Al Jazeera English journalists - looking through the prosecution cage, saying: We want to go free. We were jailed because of our jobs. And they're being accused of terrorism charges, and that's caused further outcry, saying: Is Egypt trying to equate journalism with terrorism?
Of course, in this case, it's a little bit different because Qatar - the Gulf nation that funds the Al Jazeera network - has quite a bad relationship with Egypt right now because it was supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which was in power here until the summer. So we're seeing this case, but it's indicative of the many cases that are happening pretty much daily, in which there's very little evidence being presented, if any, and people are being convicted. And that's what's happening here in Egypt right now, and that's what's really frightening so many.
YOUNG: NPR Cairo correspondent, Leila Fadel. Thank you so much.
FADEL: Thank you.
YOUNG: And a quick look now at other stories we're following. Two moves to rein in the NSA today. House Republicans unveiled a proposal to limit the NSA's collection of Americans' phone records. The proposal is very close to the White House proposal. And today, on his European trip, President Obama reiterated his support for that plan to have phone companies keep the records rather than the NSA.
Also, health workers in the West African nation of Guinea are working to control an outbreak of a highly contagious fever. The virus has sickened 86 people, killed 59, according to the World Health Organization. And according to recent research, retirement may not be all that good for you. Some studies show a decline in physical and mental health after leaving work, although it's hard for some of us to believe. These and other stories later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.