CAIRO – Egypt’s chief prosecutor on Wednesday ordered two trials for a total of 919 suspected Islamists on charges that include murder, pushing ahead with a series of mass tribunals of supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi despite international criticism.
The policy of mass trials sparked uproar among rights groups after a judge this week issued death sentences against more than 520 defendants on charges of killing a policeman during an attack on a police station last summer.
On Wednesday, students in several universities, most of them Islamists, held protests Wednesday against the death sentences, turning into clashes with security forces. An 18-year-old student was killed in the violence at Cairo University, the Health Ministry said.
Egyptian authorities are holding a series of trials in a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other supporters of Morsi since the military removed him in July. Some 16,000 have been arrested over the past months, including most of the Brotherhood’s top leaders.
The death sentences issued Monday by a court in the city of Minya, south of Cairo, brought an outcry from rights groups and criticism from the United Nations, European Union and United States over the cursory trial, which lasted only two sessions and in which lawyers said they were denied the right to make their case or question witnesses. The sentences can be appealed, and lawyers expect them to be overturned.
On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement that he was “deeply, deeply troubled, by the verdict. “It simply defies logic.”
The two new trials announced Wednesday are also to be held in Minya, the state news agency MENA reported.
A judicial official said they will be headed by the same judge, Said Youssef, who also began a new mass trial of more than 680 defendants on Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
All told, the four trials involve 2,147 defendants.
All the trials are connected to a wave of violence in mid-August after security forces broke up two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo. More than 600 were killed in the sit-in break-up, setting off a backlash of violence for days as suspected Morsi supporters attacked police stations, government installations and churches in towns around Egypt, leaving hundreds dead.
In one of the new trials announced Wednesday, 715 defendants, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s top leader Mohammed Badie, are charged with killing six people and attempted murder of 51 others during attacks on state institutions on Aug. 14 in the city of Samalout. Only 160 defendants in this case are in detention. The prosecutor asked for the arrest of the rest.
In the second trial, 204 defendants, also including Badie, face charges of inciting violence. Only three are in detention in this case, in which the charges include attacking state institutions and police in al-Adawa town, also in Minya.
A court will set a date for the trials.
Badie is also a defendant in the trial of 683 defendants that began Tuesday in Minya on murder and attempted murder in connection to a separate attack on a police station that killed two policemen.
Badie, who is jailed in Cairo, is in the multiple cases because authorities accuse him of instigating the August rioting. Days after Morsi’s ouster, he gave a fiery speech to supporters at one of the Cairo sit-ins urging them to restore Morsi to office, saying, “We are his soldiers, we will defend him with our lives.”
On Wednesday, hundreds of largely Islamist university students in a number of universities protested against the mass death sentences.
At Cairo University, hundreds of students who attempted to take their protest outside the campus were met with volleys of tear gas from police. Khadiga el-Kholy, a student participating in the protest, said the police force gave no warnings before firing the tear gas, sending the students rushing back on campus.
Students responded by throwing stones and fireworks and hurling tear gas canisters back at the security forces in pitched street battles. TV footage showed security in civilian clothes detaining protesters and taking them away in blindfolds. There were also images of the security seizing fire bombs from young protesters. El-Kholy said police fired birdshot at the protesters.
“We wanted to escalate our protest because of those death sentences, which included university students,” she said, adding that the protesters had sought to move into a nearby public square outside the campus. “We want to break the barriers that the security forces have imposed on all the squares.”
In the Nile Delta city of Zagazig, police said students damaged the facade of an administrative building in the local university and clashed with rival students, prompting to security forces to enter the campus and arrest eight rioters.
Thousands of Morsi supporters are already arrested and most are facing trials on a number of charges, including inciting violence, and rioting.
Morsi’s Islamist supporters have continued to hold protests against his ouster. Authorities accuse the group of fomenting violence and terrorism, a claim the group denies.
The pro-Morsi camp has refused to recognize the new political road map installed by the military after his ouster. Presidential elections are now expected next month.
The head of the military, Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who removed Morsi, is widely expected to run for president — and win the election. On Wednesday, the council of top generals, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, convened a meeting with interim President Adly Mansour, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said in a statement on his official Facebook page.
He did not elaborate on the meeting. A military official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door meeting, said el-Sissi was expected to give the council his resignation from the military and his post as defense minister, a required step before he can announce his candidacy.
As Egypt awaited an announcement on el-Sissi, a presidential spokesman said that Mansour had promoted Sidki Sobhi, chief of staff, to general from lieutenant general during the meeting. Sobhi is expected to replace el-Sissi as defense minister.