683 sentenced to death in Egypt
A judge in Egypt has sentenced to death 683 alleged supporters of the country's ousted Islamist president, including the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader.
It is the latest in a series of mass trials that have drawn international condemnation and stunned rights groups.
The same judge also upheld the death penalty for 37 of 529 defendants sentenced in a similar case in March, though he commuted the rest to life imprisonment.
Still, the 37 death sentences, which can be appealed in a higher court, remain an extraordinarily high number for Egypt. The trial in the wake of the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat only saw five people sentenced to death and executed.
In announcing the 683 death sentences for violence and the killing of policemen, Judge Said Youssef also said he was referring his ruling on the to the Grand Mufti, the nation's top Islamic official - a requirement under Egyptian law, but one that is considered a formality.
Both this and the March trial are linked to deadly riots that erupted in Minya and elsewhere after security forces violently disbanded sit-ins held by Brotherhood supporters in Cairo last August.
Hundreds of people were killed as part of a sweeping campaign against supporters of former president Mohammed Morsi, ousted by the military last July.
The removal of Morsi a year after he was elected came after millions demonstrated against his rule, demanding he step down for abuse of power.
Among those convicted and sentenced to death today was Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood's spiritual guide. If his sentence is confirmed, it would make him the most senior Brotherhood figure sentenced to death since one of the group's leading ideologues, Sayed Qutb, was executed in 1966.
Badie was not present during the hearing in Minya, as he was in a Cairo court where he faces charges of murder and incitement to murder along with 16 other Brotherhood leaders in a case connected to deadly protests outside the group's headquarters last June.
Once the Mufti reviews today's ruling, the same court will hold another session on June 21 to issue the final verdicts.
As the ruling was announced, an outcry erupted outside the court among the families and relatives of the defendants. Women fainted and wailed as many cried out: "Why? This is unfair!"
"My three sons are inside," said a woman who only gave her first name, Samiya, as she screamed in grief. "I have no one but God."
Sitting on the pavement in front of the police cordon, 58-year-old Fatma, who also would not give her second name out of fear for her relative on trial, broke into tears and screamed: "This judge is a butcher."
The father of another defendant, Mohammed Hassan Shehata, said his son Mahmoud was arrested in January, six months after the alleged violence.
"There is no evidence whatsoever," he said. "If my son is guilty, behead him but if he is innocent, there will be a civil war."
Lawyer Ali Kamal, said the hearing lasted only eight minutes. Security forces surrounded the court building and blocked roads, preventing families and media from attending the proceedings.
"This is against the spirit of the law," he said.
According to a judicial official who oversaw the investigation in the case, evidence presented in the trial consisted mostly of footage of the defendants showing them attacking and looting a police station in Cairo and setting fire to several government buildings. The defendants faced 13 charges, five of them punishable by death, said the official.
"This is a public opinion case, there must be a swift, deterrent punishment," he said. "Yes, the verdict is very harsh, the number of people on trial is shocking, but it's proportional to the crimes."
If the Grand Mufti "upholds the death sentences for all or recommends reversing them, it won't mean anything to the judge", he added. "Only the judge has the right and the power to reverse his earlier decisions."
In a separate development, an Egyptian court has also banned the April 6 youth movement that helped engineer the 2011 uprising that led to the ousting of long-term autocratic president Hosni Mubarak.
That ruling was seen by activists as part of a government-orchestrated campaign to stifle opposition and dissent. It can be suspended by a higher tribunal.
A Cairo court ruled in a suit filed by a lawyer who demanded the banning of the youth group over allegations it "tarnished the image of the Egyptian state" and conspired against the country's national interests.
Leaders of April 6 - Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel - have been jailed for violating a new protest law that requires that any demonstration must have a police permit.