An Egyptian court Monday sentenced to death nearly 530 suspected backers of ousted President Mohammed Morsi over a deadly attack on a police station, capping a swift, two-day mass trial in which defence attorneys were not allowed to present their case.
It was the largest single batch of death sentences in the world in recent years, Amnesty International said. The U.S. State Department said it "defies logic" that so many people could get a fair trial in just two sessions.
The verdicts by a court in the city of Minya are subject to appeal and are likely to be overturned.
But the outcome stunned human rights activists and raised fears that the rule of law is being swept away in the crackdown waged by the military-backed interim government against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood since his overthrow last summer.
The government is conducting a series of mass trials of Brotherhood supporters, some with hundreds of defendants.
"It turns the judiciary in Egypt from a tool for achieving justice into an instrument for taking revenge," said Mohammed Zarie, a Cairo-based human rights lawyer.
Egypt's Foreign Ministry brushed off the criticism, saying in a statement that the judiciary is "entirely independent and is not influenced in any way by the executive branch of government."
The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, a claim it denies. Some 16,000 people have been arrested since Morsi's ouster, including most of the group's top leaders as well as large numbers swept up by police during pro-Morsi protests.
A judicial official involved in Monday's case told The Associated Press that the swift and harsh verdicts were meant as a deterrent.
"Now no one would dare to think to attack a police station or a state institution after they saw death penalties falling on their group's heads," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk about the case.
On Tuesday, a group of 683 defendants is set to go on trial in Minya over an attack on another police station. Among the defendants are the top leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badei, and other senior figures.
"We are deeply concerned that the dozens of mass trials that are taking place ... are similarly riddled with due process violations and will also result in outrageous sentences," said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.
Amin Fatouh, a Cairo resident, said: "Those who kill deserve death, just as the Qur’an says. These people have committed murder, and they must be killed in return."