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Apr 21, 2:40 PM EDT

Court sentences ousted Egypt president to 20 years in prison


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CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's ousted Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, was convicted of using force against protesters and sentenced to 20 years in prison on Tuesday, the first verdict against him since he was removed by the military nearly two years ago.

The case was the latest in a series of mass trials on a range of charges against Morsi and other members of his Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt's government has vowed to crush, branding it a terrorist organization. Amnesty International denounced Morsi's trial as a "sham" - as rights groups have called many of the trials over the past two years.

The Brotherhood went from decades as an underground organization to vault to power after Egypt's 2011 popular uprising toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The Brotherhood was the biggest winner in subsequent parliament elections, and Morsi - running as its candidate - became Egypt's first freely elected president in 2012.

But a year later, millions protested against Morsi's divisive rule, and then-army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi led the military's July 2013 removal of Morsi. Since then, a fierce crackdown has shattered the Brotherhood, killing hundreds of its supporters protesting for Morsi's return and arresting thousands more.

The verdict also sparked no immediate street protests, reflecting the crackdown's impact on any show of dissent - either by Islamists or other activists.

Most of the Brotherhood's top leadership already have received heavy prison sentences in other trials, as well as hundreds of death sentences laid down for senior figures and lower level supporters over acts of violence carried out during protests against Morsi's ouster. The Brotherhood's top leader, Mohammed Badie, has received several death sentences in multiple cases - though they are subject to appeal. He appeared in court recently in the red jumpsuit worn by Egyptian prisoners on death row.

At the same time, Mubarak and members of his inner circle have largely been acquitted of charges related to the killing of protesters during the uprising against his rule. Charges against Mubarak over the killings were dropped earlier this year.

Political science professor Hassan Nafaa said average Egyptians have seen the differences between the trials of Morsi and Mubarak.

"People are not reassured of the fairness of these trials," Nafaa said.

The U.S. government also expressed reservations about the Morsi verdict, but State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the Obama administration would withhold judgment for now.

"We are concerned by these sentences. All Egyptians, regardless of political affiliation, are entitled to equal and fair treatment before the law, including the full respect for their rights to due process," Harf said. "We will review the basis of the verdict which I understand the Egyptian court will make public soon. I don't think we'll have much more announcements to do before a review of the basis of that verdict."

The government accuses the Brotherhood of fueling violence in the country and has rejected accusations that the judiciary is politicized.

The Brotherhood denies any involvement in violence. But there are fears that in the face of violence a younger generation of Islamists is turning to militancy. Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is the scene of a months-old insurgency by militants who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group, and there have been frequent low-level but often deadly bombings targeting police and the military in Cairo.

Besides Tuesday's case, Morsi is facing four other trials in which he is could face the death penalty if convicted, on charges including orchestrating a prison break and undermining national security by conspiring with foreign groups.

In Tuesday's verdict, Morsi avoided the death penalty when the judge dropped murder charges in the trial. The verdict can be appealed.

The trial was in connection to violence that erupted during Morsi's presidency in December 2012. Morsi's supporters attacked crowds protesting outside the presidential palace demanding that Morsi call off a referendum on an Islamist-drafted constitution. In more than 15 hours of clashes, at least 10 people were killed.

The violence fueled public animosity against Morsi, particularly because of images of bearded Islamists swinging clubs and firing rifles and chanting "God is great" as they descended on the protesters' tent camp.

Morsi was convicted on charges of carrying out a "show of force" - a charge similar to intimidation or thuggery - as well as illegal detention. The latter charge came because the Islamists who attacked the protesters held some in makeshift prisons at the site and beat them.

While Judge Ahmed Youssef read his verdict Tuesday, Morsi and other defendants in the case - mostly Brotherhood leaders - stood in a soundproof glass cage inside a makeshift courtroom at Egypt's national police academy. Seven of the accused were tried in absentia.

In addition to Morsi, 12 Brotherhood leaders and Islamist supporters, including senior figures Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, were sentenced to 20 years in prison.

The head of Morsi's defense team, Mohammed el-Damaty, said the sentence is "way too much" for a "show of force" charge. He said the judiciary is trying to settle scores because of the numerous political clashes between Morsi and the judiciary during his presidency.

"They are taking revenge now, that is all," el-Damaty said. "Look at the judges' and state prosecutors' narrative and you will see them using terms like `the deviant group' ... That speaks volumes about prejudices."

Trial process was flawed and the evidence was "at best flimsy," Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's deputy Middle East and North Africa director, said in a statement.

Morsi's questioning took place without his lawyers present during his detention in an undisclosed location for four months following his ouster.

Amnesty said Morsi's legal team was only able to access case files days before the trial began. It also documented irregularities, nothing that abuses by his supporters - not his opponents - were the only evidence documented. The court also ignored what Amnesty said were deaths among Morsi's supporters during the same protests.

During Tuesday's session, Morsi and the rest of the defendants in white jumpsuits raised the four-finger sign symbolizing the sit-in at the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, where hundreds were killed when security forces violently dispersed the sprawling sit-in by Morsi's supporters on Aug. 14, 2013. They also smiled for cameras filming the hearing.

It was a far cry from when the trial first began, when Morsi repeatedly shouted, "I am the president of the republic!"

From his exile in Turkey, top Muslim Brotherhood figure Amr Darrag called the ruling "a sad and terrible day in Egyptian history."

"They want to pass a life sentence for democracy in Egypt," Darrag said.

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