CAIRO – The United States and Europe have expressed alarm at death sentences for Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi and dozens of others, a verdict experts called a declaration of "total war" on his Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi was among more than 100 defendants given the death penalty on Saturday for their role in a mass jailbreak during the 2011 uprising.
He ruled for only a year before huge protests spurred then army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to overthrow him in July 2013.
Sisi won a presidential election in May 2014 backed by Egyptians tired of political turmoil in the world's most populous Arab nation following the 2011 revolt against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Washington expressed concern over Saturday's verdict, saying it has "consistently spoken out against the practice of mass trials and sentences." "We continue to stress the need for due process and individualised judicial processes for all Egyptians in the interests of justice," a State Department official said.
The European Union's top diplomat Federica Mogherini said the trial was flawed and that the bloc believed the sentence would be revised upon appeal.
"The court decision to seek the death penalty... was taken at the end of a mass trial that was not in line with Egypt's obligations under international law," she said in a statement.
A crackdown under Sisi has seen hundreds of Morsi's Islamist supporters killed, thousands jailed and dozens sentenced to death after mass trials the United Nations called "unprecedented in recent history."
Ties between Washington and Cairo plummeted after Morsi's ouster, with President Barack Obama's adminstration freezing annual military aid of $1.3 billion to Cairo. Most of the aid was unblocked in late 2014.
The foreign ministry denounced global condemnation of the verdict as "unacceptable interference in the internal affairs of the country."
'War' against Brotherhood
Judge Shabaan El-Shamy convicted Morsi, already sentenced to 20 years in jail in another trial, and dozens of other co-defendants including prominent Qatar-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, of plotting jailbreaks and attacks on police during the 2011 revolt.
The death sentences "have no value and cannot be implemented because they are against the rule of God and people's laws and customs," Qaradawi told the Doha-based Al-Jazeera news channel.
Experts said the verdict underscored Sisi's vow to eradicate the 87-year-old Muslim Brotherhood movement, which topped successive polls between the fall of Mubarak and Morsi's presidential win in May 2012.
"The new regime of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is using all elements of the state to break the political will of the Muslim Brotherhood," said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle East studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
"The judicial system is also waging an all-out war against the Muslim Brotherhood. This clearly reflects a total war waged by the Egyptian state against the Muslim Brotherhood."
Rights groups accuse the authorities of using the judiciary to repress the opposition, primarily the Brotherhood, already designated a "terrorist group." Officials blame it for attacks that have killed hundreds of security personnel, a charge the movement denies.
The jihadist group Sinai Province, the Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State organisation, has claimed most of the attacks.
"The judiciary is obviously in the pocket of the government," said Peter Sluglett, director of the Middle East Institute at National University of Singapore.
'Act of stupidity'
"This is an act of stupidity and folly as well as cruelty and revenge," he said of Saturday's verdict. The court will pronounce its final decision on June 2 in the jailbreak case, and also in a separate espionage case involving Morsi and 18 others.
Under Egyptian law, death sentences are referred to the mufti, the government's interpreter of Islamic law, who plays an advisory role.
Defendants can still appeal even after the mufti's recommendation.
"The military-backed regime has been targeting peaceful opponents, young protesters, students, journalists and academics," said Emad Shahin, a prominent academic at Georgetown University who was sentenced to death in the espionage trial along with 15 others on Saturday.
"It is currently seeking to reconstitute the security state and intimidate all opponents," he said in a statement.
The verdict in the jailbreak case raised many questions, said Mustafa Kamel Al-Sayyid, political professor at Cairo University.
"Morsi was a detainee and not a prisoner when the revolution against Mubarak erupted. So for someone who is not condemned and detained illegally, for him to get out of a prison is not a crime.
"Also how can he plot attacks when he himself was detained? The court is listening to only those who are accusing him." — AFP