Egypt's judges rebuff criticism of death sentences

Egypt's Justice Minister said the judiciary is not a tool of executive authority and that rulings can be overturned upon appeal

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Egypt's Justice Minister on Wednesday rebuffed international criticism of a mass trial this week in which some 680 defendants were sentenced to death, saying the judiciary is not a tool of executive authority and that rulings can be overturned upon appeal.

"Egyptian judges are independent and there is no control over them," Nayer Osman told reporters. "No one in the state is directing the judge - neither a minister, nor an official."

After a death penalty ruling, the prosecutor must appeal along with the defendant in line with normal judicial process, he added. "The judge is a human being. He can make a mistake like any other human being," he said.

Osman added that commenting on the verdicts "is not acceptable by all means ... we don't accept any intervention by any means."

Later in the day, New York-based Human Rights Watch condemned another recent Egyptian court decision: a ban on the April 6 youth organization issued two days ago. The group said it was an "escalation in the government's campaign against all peaceful opposition."

April 6 is an influential group, one of several that engineered the 2011 uprising against longtime dictator Husni Mubarak that set off nearly three years of unrest. The court ordered the takeover of the group's offices.

"Banning political dissent won't make it go away," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

Also Wednesday, a court sentenced 21 Brotherhood supporters including the group's supreme guide and a prominent Salafi preacher to a year in prison with labor for insulting judges during their trial.

Mohammad Badie, the spiritual leader of the banned group was charged along with 19 others for "insulting the court" by turning his back to the room.

Earlier, Safwat Hegazy, a strong supporter of deposed Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, was sentenced for refusing to remain silent in court and speaking to the judge in an inappropriate manner. Hegazy, Badie and the 19 others were sentenced while on trial with 130 others including Morsi, for escaping from prison during the country's 2011 uprising.

Hegazy was a key speaker at the main pro-Morsi sit-in dispersed by security forces last August. He had told protesters to hold their ground and promised to reverse the military's overthrow of Morsi.

Thousands of supporters of the now-illegal Brotherhood and the ousted president are in prison awaiting trial, along with liberal democracy activists who have spoken out against the military-backed government.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.