CAIRO - Egyptian prosecutors on Saturday referred the country's toppled president to a third criminal trial on charges of organizing prison breaks during the 2011 uprising, spreading chaos and abducting police officers in collaboration with foreign militants.
The new charges against Mohammed Morsi and 129 others pile on the legal onslaught facing the ousted Islamist president and his group, the Muslim Brotherhood, by levelling sweeping accusations, most of which carry the death penalty.
Egypt's military-backed interim government has sought to portray the Brotherhood as largely responsible for the violence and militant attacks that engulfed the country following the 2011 ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The violence has surged following the popularly-backed military coup that deposed Morsi in July.
The latest case against Egypt's first freely elected president is rooted in the 2011 escape of more than 20,000 inmates from prisons across the country — including Morsi. Investigative Judge Hassan Samir said other Brotherhood suspects in the case include the group's leader Mohammed Badie, his deputy Mahmoud Ezzat, who is still at large, former Parliament Speaker Saad el-Katatni and others.
Also charged are members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and the Lebanese group Hezbollah who also broke out of Egyptian jails. Prominent pro-Brotherhood cleric Youssef el-Qaradawi, an Egyptian based in Qatar, is also on the list, said a prosecution official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
A statement from Samir's office didn't name all the 129 defendants but referred to the case as the "most dangerous terror crime the country faces." It said an investigation into the case since April has shown that the Brotherhood plotted with foreign groups to "destroy the Egyptian state and its institutions," recruiting some 800 militants through the Gaza Strip to attack police stations and at least three prisons in Egypt, breaking out thousands of prisoners while killing police officers and inmates.
Authorities have said the jailbreaks were part of an organized effort to destabilize the country. Rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the chaotic events, saying they hold the police responsible for the pandemonium.
No date has been set for the new trial.
Morsi and several leading Muslim Brotherhood members already face charges in a separate case of inciting the murder of his opponents while he was in office — a trial that has already started and is due to resume next month. Morsi also was charged separately earlier this week with conspiring with foreign groups to destabilize Egypt. A date for that trial has yet to be set.
Brotherhood lawyer Mohammed el-Damati said the latest trials appear aimed at "denigrating" Morsi and the Brotherhood, and are part of political pressure on his supporters to reel in their near-daily protests.
"Any official, small or big, can be accused of political repression, corruption or killing protesters. But what really demeans any official is to be accused of these baseless crimes that amount to treason," el-Damati told The Associated Press.
El-Damati also accused authorities of trying to blame all the chaos on the Brotherhood.
"They are going over Jan. 25, 2011, with an eraser," el-Damati said, referring to the day Egypt's revolution began.
The 85-year-old Brotherhood had been banned under Mubarak and earlier Egyptian governments, but was largely tolerated. The new crackdown is a dramatic turn in its fortunes, particularly after it rose to prominence in Egypt's 2012 elections.
The crackdown on the Brotherhood has recently widened to target secular and non-Islamists critical of the post-Morsi government. In a statement Saturday, Human Rights Watch said security forces are expanding "their harassment of political activists" following a recent raid on the office of a local human rights groups, in which one prominent activist, Mohammed Adel, was arrested and referred to trial.
Five other staff members of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights were briefly detained following the raid.
"It should come as no surprise that with the persecution of the Muslim Brotherhood well underway, the Ministry of Interior is now targeting leaders of the secular protest movement," said Sarah Leah Whitson, the group's Middle East and North Africa director.
The group also blasted the referral to trial of three other prominent activists, mostly for allegedly violating a new restrictive protest law. It added that authorities appear to be targeting "the voices who, since January 2011, have consistently demanded justice and security agency reform."
The trial of three of the activists is due to resume Sunday. Adel's lawyer, Alaa Abdel-Tawab, said his client has gone on a hunger strike because of mistreatment in detention. The lawyer said he was not allowed to visit Adel, who also was denied warm clothes.
Security officials also said Saturday two top aides of Morsi, including his foreign policy adviser Essam el-Haddad, have been transferred to a high-security prison in Cairo's southern Torah district. The two aides were believed held in a secret military location since the coup.
Associated Press writer Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.