An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood members to death, a verdict that human rights activists say will further fuel instability in the violence-ridden country.
The sentences were linked to clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and state security forces last August in Egypt’s southern province of Minya. Egyptian forces have killed hundreds of Brotherhood members and arrested thousands since the army ousted former president and Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi last July.
Morsi was deposed following mass protests against his authoritarian rule. The interim military government subsequently declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Egyptian forces are currently battling a renewed insurgency of al Qaeda-linked militants in the Sinai Peninsula between Egypt and Israel.
However, analysts say the military has made no distinction between protesters in the streets of Cairo and radical Islamists in the Sinai. Monday’s mass death sentence, the largest in Egypt’s modern history, could stoke further bloodshed.
"It’s a hasty verdict that contrasts spectacularly with the overall lack of accountability for security forces who have been accused of the death of protesters going back to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces [SCAF] period and before," said Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs for Freedom House, in an email. "It propels Egypt further down the road toward instability and possible political violence."
The charges against the Brotherhood members include violence, inciting murder, storming a police station, attacking persons, and damaging public and private property. Only about 120 of the defendants were in court and the rest were sentenced in absentia. Defense lawyers said the judge did not allow them time to make their arguments.
The defendants can still appeal the verdict.
Human rights activists say the death sentences were disproportionate compared to other cases across the country. A Cairo court last week sentenced a police officer to 10 years in prison with labor for involvement in the deaths of 37 Islamists last year.
Another court last week sentenced 17 students to 14 years in jail on charges including rioting and damaging public property during university protests last year.
Long-time U.S. ally Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011 protests as part of a wave of revolutions across the Middle East. Egypt’s SCAF, led by Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, took over before Morsi became the country’s first democratically elected president.
About $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to Egypt is restricted by legislative provisions that require the country’s interim government to make a democratic transition and hold free and fair elections. Sisi is widely expected to run and win upcoming presidential elections, which would install another military leader.
Activists have raised concerns that a Sisi administration would not scale back the current crack down on dissent.
While the Obama administration has supported tying aid to Egypt with democratic reforms, overall funding for democracy promotion in the Middle East has declined in recent years.
The administration requested $225 million next year for "Middle East and North Africa [MENA] Initiative Reforms" to aid democratic transitions in the region, compared to almost $800 million in 2013.
The State Department did not respond to a request for comment by press time.