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Egypt court confirms death sentences for Muslim Brotherhood spiritual leader, over 180 others

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MINYA, Egypt - The Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader and over 180 others were sentenced to death Saturday by an Egyptian court in the latest mass trial following last year's overthrow of the country's Islamist president.

The ruling by the southern Minya Criminal Court is the largest confirmed mass death sentence to be handed down in Egypt in recent memory and comes from Judge Said Youssef, who earlier presided over the mass trial. It is the second death sentence for the Brotherhood's Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie since the crackdown against his group began.

The court acquitted more than 400 others in the case and family members of the accused wailed or cheered the verdicts.

The case stems from an attack on a police station in the town of el-Adwa near the southern city of Minya on Aug. 14 which killed one police officer and one civilian. Similar revenge attacks swept across Egypt following a security force crackdown on Cairo sit-ins supporting toppled President Mohammed Morsi that killed hundreds. The charges in the case ranged from murder, joining a terrorist organization, sabotage, possession of weapons and terrorizing civilians.

Initially, Youssef sentenced some 683 people to death over the attack, then sent the case to Egypt's Grand Mufti, the country's top spiritual leader. The Mufti offered his opinion, then sent the case back to Youssef to confirm his sentence.

Lawyers for the accused said they planned to appeal. Of the initial 683, all but 110 were tried in absentia, a defence lawyer said, meaning they will receive new trials once apprehended as guaranteed by Egyptian law.

The mass trials have drawn worldwide rebuke. However, the trials have continued with many Egyptians appearing to approve of the heavy-handed measures as a way to end the turmoil roiling their country since its 2011 revolt against autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"There has been an excess in using the death sentences recently, which will only lead to more violence in society because people are now used to the idea of execution, killing and blood," prominent rights lawyer Negad el-Borai said.

Amnesty International described the ruling as one more "alarming sign of the Egyptian judiciary's increasing politicization," especially with "notable spike" in death sentences.

New-York based Human Rights Watch called the verdict is a "travesty of justice."

"The punishments are deadly serious, but the trials weren't," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.

A security official said only 93 of the defendants are Muslim Brotherhood members. Also among those sentenced to death Saturday was a blind man named Mustafa Youssef.

"He was born blind. How would he kill, burn and loot?" asked Mahmoud Abdel-Raziq, Youssef's lawyer.

Saturday's hearing lasted for less than 15 minutes, a security official said. Only 75 prisoners were brought to a prison attached to the court but didn't attend the session. Badie, held in a Cairo prison, did not attend, the official said.

Youssef arrived to the court in an armoured vehicle and security officials escorted him inside.

Female relatives to those who were acquitted ululated, clapped and chanted the pro-military slogan: "The army and the people are one hand."

Those whose relatives received death sentences screamed in grief and shouted insults to the brother of the police officer slain in the Aug. 14 attack. They believe police shot the officer themselves as part of a conspiracy against their loved ones.

Ashour Qaddab, the brother of the slain police officer, broke into tears after the verdict.

"This is God's justice ... to my brother's five orphans," Qaddab said. On hearing him, relatives of other defendants screamed: "Your brother was killed by police!"

Later in the day, dozens of activists gathered to march to the presidential palace to denounce the country's protest law, which bans unauthorized gatherings and threatens prison and heavy fines for violators. Several activists have been already jailed under the law or face charges of breaking it, the latest of whom is Alaa Abdel-Fattah, an icon of the 2011 revolt that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

Abdel-Fattah and 23 others were sentenced to 15 years prison for holding illegal demonstrations, using force against police and posing a threat to public safety and order.

Saturday's march however did not make it through to the palace. Ahdaf Soueif, a prominent activist and novelist, said men in civilian clothes attacked the group and police fired tear gas at it to disperse it. Several people were arrested, Soueif said, including Abdel-Fattah's sister, Sanaa.

___

Associated Press writers Maggie Michael and Mariam Rizk in Cairo contributed to this report.

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