Military regime sentences 529 Egyptians to death: Convictions highlight the continued tension around Egypt’s New Government

Sayyaf Gamal, 21, is on the run after being convicted of murder by a court in Minya, Egypt, 150 miles south of Cairo.

Despite claiming that he was not part of the mob that killed a deputy police chief, Gamal received a death sentence in absentia on March 24 along with 528 other people whom the military government claims participated in the attacks.

“We did not expect such a brutal sentence,” said Gamal to Reuters in a phone interview. “But at the same time, this military regime just wants to kill anybody who wants to express an opinion.”

The convicted are members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that held power before the military coup in July. The military government has labeled the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

“The Muslim Brotherhood is a source of ire for mainstream politicians,” said Ziad Najjar, owner of Greensboro’s Hookah Hook-up, who is of Jordanian descent.

Out of the 545 defendants, only 123 were present during the trial. The rest were released on bail or, like Gamal, are in hiding.

The first court session began on March 22 but was brought to a close by an argument between the judge and attorneys. When the court reconvened on Monday, the judge delivered his decision: 16 of the 545 defendants were exonerated, while the rest were sentenced to hang.

The trial has highlighted tension surrounding Egypt’s military government both at home and abroad.

In Egypt, the sentence has sparked violent confrontations between security forces and protestors sympathetic to the Brotherhood resulting in at least six deaths and more arrests on March 28.

Other Egyptians, however, feel that the condemned deserve the sentence.

“These people have committed murder, and they must be killed in return,” said Amin Fatouh, a resident of Cairo, to the Boston Herald.

Despite the possibility of appeal, the haste and scope of the trial have drawn criticism from international human rights organizations.

Amnesty International released a statement referring to the sentence as “grotesque,” and Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, told a Geneva news conference that the trial “is a breach of international human rights law.”

The U.S. has been more cautious in its response.

“It defies logic that over 529 defendants could be tried in a two-day period in accordance with international standards,” said Marie Harf, deputy spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, during a press briefing.

However, Harf also emphasized the importance of maintaining relationships with the Egyptian government. When the possibility of sanctions against Egypt was suggested, she said that the U.S. was still “trying to ascertain all the facts.”

According to Sanjay Marwah, assistant professor of justice and policy studies at Guilford College, the U.S. is unlikely to use sanctions or other forms of pressure on the Egyptian government.

“The U.S. and other Western European nations do not seem to mind dictators, because security is more paramount than democracy,” said Marwah.

The eventual fate of the convicted remains unknown.

“Even though Egypt has a relatively low execution rate, the fear of civil war or continuous instability might result in a departure from normal patterns,” said Adrienne Israel, vice president for academic affairs and academic dean at Guilford. “These trials have been held in a political context. It is hard to determine in what direction a criminal justice system in any country will take under these kinds of circumstances.”

Gamal had his own view of the government’s motives.

“They are willing to kill everybody so that there is no freedom of expression,” said Gamal to Reuters.