MINYA, Egypt (AP) — An Egyptian court opened a new mass trial of 683 suspected Islamists charged with murder and inciting violence on Tuesday, despite international criticism of hundreds of death sentences issued a day earlier in a similar tribunal. Defense lawyers boycotted the new proceedings, denouncing the verdicts.
The judge in the city of Minya, south of Cairo, went ahead with the session Tuesday, hearing witnesses in the case despite the absence of defense lawyers, a violation of the law, the lawyers said.
Egyptian authorities are holding a series of mass trials, with hundreds of defendants each, as part of a monthslong crackdown on Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood since the military's July ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. Some 16,000 people have been arrested in the crackdown and hundreds killed.
On Monday, the Minya court handed down death sentences against 528 defendants after a mass trial which lasted only two sessions and in which defense lawyers were not allowed to present their case. The defendants were convicted on charges of murder and attempted murder in connection to a mob attack last August on a police station in a town near Minya in which a police officer was killed.
The sentences are subject to appeal and even judicial officials involved in the case said they expect them to be overturned. But the verdicts stunned Egyptian human rights activists and brought international criticism on Egypt. On Tuesday, the U.N. human rights office called the mass death sentences "unprecedented in recent history" and "a breach of international human rights law."
The U.S. State Department said it "defies logic" that so many defendants could have gotten a fair trial in two sessions. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the verdicts "very alarming" and said "further mass trials must be suspended." The European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, called on Egyptian officials to ensure "defendants' rights to a fair and timely trial."
The Justice Ministry on Tuesday issued a statement in reaction to the verdicts, underlining that the defendants have a right to appeal the verdicts to the Court of Cassation, which can order a retrial. If the retrial reaches a similar verdict, the defendants can appeal to the higher court again, it said.
The same judge, Said Youssef, is presiding over the new trial that opened Tuesday, in which 683 people are charged in connection to a mob attack the same day on another police station in the town of el-Adawa in which two policemen were killed. The police station attacks were part of a wave of rioting by Morsi supporters, sparked when security forces stormed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo on Aug. 14, killing more than 600 protesters.
Only 68 of the 683 defendants were in the dock on Tuesday. The rest are being tried in absentia — much like the previous mass trial, in which only 150 of the defendants were in custody.
Among the defendants in Tuesday's trial are the Brotherhood's top leader Mohammed Badie and several other senior figures from the group who are being held in Cairo and were not brought to attend the Minya trial for security reasons.
As a show of protest over the verdicts in the first trial, defense lawyers boycotted Tuesday's tribunal.
"As lawyers, we haven't seen anything like what happened here yesterday in our entire professional lives and we will not see anything like it until our deaths," Khaled Fouda, of the Minya lawyers' syndicate, told a press conference announcing the boycott.
One of the boycotting defense lawyers, Yasser Zidan, said the judge violated the law by not postponing Tuesday's session until new lawyers could be appointed for the defendants. "This is just another disaster," Zidan said. "This judge smashed the rock of justice with his own hands. He is inventing a new law."
The defendants are charged with murder for the policemen's deaths and attempted murder of five people, including a Christian resident. They are also charged with belonging to a terrorist group, in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, and with financing, aiding and providing weapons and communications to carry terrorist attacks.
The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, a claim it denies.
Roads around the Minya court building were blocked by cement blocks and metal barricades, manned by security forces and masked special forces. Armored vehicles patrolled the streets and shops in the vicinity of the court were shut down.
Security forces kept small groups of protesters, including relatives of the defendants, and traffic away from the area.
In a nearby coffee shop, relatives of the defendants sat to sip tea and have breakfast. One of them, 45-year-old al-Hawari, a farmer who spoke on condition he be indentified only by his first name for fear of police harassment, said his cousins and neighbors are among the defendants. He insisted they were not involved in killings or violence.
"These are all fabrications. Where is the evidence?" said al-Hawari, dressed in traditional robes. Still, he acknowledged that on the day of the mob attack in the el-Adwa police station, many people were involved in fighting, shooting and rioting near the police station to take revenge from "injustice inflicted by the police officers."
"We already know the verdict. God be with us," he said with a sigh.
Michael reported from Cairo.