A judge in Egypt on Monday sentenced to death 683 alleged supporters of the country's ousted Islamist president, including the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, the latest in 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, compared to the dramatic trial in the wake of the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, when only five people were sentenced to death and executed.
In announcing the 683 death sentences for violence and the killing of policemen, Judge Said Youssef on Monday 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 Monday's and the March trial are linked to deadly riots that erupted in Minya and elsewhere in Egypt after security forces violently disbanded sit-ins held by Brotherhood supporters in Cairo last August.
Hundreds 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 on Monday 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, who was not present during the hearing in Minya, was in another court, in Cairo, 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 Monday'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 and 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 fearing 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 he was charged with.
"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 Monday's 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," Kamal said.