Egyptian court delays verdict in mass trial over Rabaa sit-in

Police stand guards during a court session in which 739 people are being tried for participating in a 2013 sit-in in support of the Muslim Brotherhood. in Cairo, Egypt June 30, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – An Egyptian court on Saturday delayed a final ruling in a case against 739 people involved in a 2013 sit-in protest that was broken up by security forces, saying defendants could not be transferred to the court due to “security concerns”.

The case, which involves top leaders of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, including the group’s leader Mohamed Badie, relates to a 2013 sit-in at Cairo’s Rabaa Square in support of Islamist President Mohamed Mursi after the army toppled him.

Some of the defendants, including an award-winning photojournalist, could face the death penalty if convicted on charges ranging from murder to incitement to violence. International rights groups have condemned the trial.

“The idea that more than 700 people could all stand trial together in one day, all facing the death penalty in what is clearly a grossly unfair trial that violates Egypt’s own constitution beggars belief,” said Amnesty International’s North African campaigns director Najia Bounaim.

Hundreds were killed when security forces broke up the Rabaa protest and another one in Giza, in one of the bloodiest events in Egypt’s recent history. Foreign governments and rights groups have condemned the use of force to disperse the demonstrators.

Cairo has defended its actions, saying it had given protesters the opportunity to leave peacefully and that armed elements within the Brotherhood initiated the violence.

The Cairo Criminal Court had been expected to issue its final verdict in the case on Saturday, the anniversary of mass protests against Mursi’s rule in 2013 that prompted the army to move against him. A judge said security concerns had stopped the defendants being transferred to the court and set a new hearing for July 28.

Two of Mursi’s sons were at the hearing, in which one of their brothers is a defendant, witnesses said.

Photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, who was arrested as he took pictures of the sit-in’s dispersal, is accused of belonging to a banned group and possessing firearms. He denies the charges.

International rights organizations, including Amnesty International and The Committee to Protect Journalists, have repeatedly denounced Shawkan’s imprisonment and urged Egyptian authorities to drop charges against him. Amnesty says he was imprisoned merely for doing his job as a photojournalist.

Authorities outlawed the Brotherhood and designated it a terrorist organization after Mursi was ousted.

They also dissolved its Freedom and Justice Party, and arrested thousands of its supporters before banning protests in a crackdown by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government that rights groups say has muzzled freedom of expression.