An Egyptian court Monday sentenced to death 529 supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi on charges including one murder count, in a trial denounced by human rights groups as bereft of due process.
The biggest mass death sentence handed down in Egypt's modern history comes amid a sharp escalation of a crackdown on dissent and, in particular, on the Muslim Brotherhood. It prompted cries of anguish among family members of the accused gathered outside the courthouse.
Human rights organizations said Monday's verdict suggested the authorities intended to tighten their squeeze on groups continuing to oppose the coup that overthrew the democratically elected Morsi last July.
State television reported the sentences without comment, while a government spokesman and other officials did not immediately respond to calls.
Most of the defendants at Monday's hearing had been detained and charged with carrying out attacks during clashes which erupted in the southern province of Minya following the violent dispersal of two Muslim Brotherhood protest camps in Cairo on August 14.
"The court has decided to sentence to death 529 defendants, and 16 were acquitted," defense lawyer Ahmed al-Sharif told Reuters.
The convicted men can appeal against the ruling.
"Today's sentence comes as the result of a judicial process that denied defendants the most basic due process rights," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director for Human Rights Watch. "Reaching its verdict after two court sessions and with the vast majority of defendants not present, the court prevented defense lawyers from calling witnesses or presenting its case outside of a written submission and failed to assess the individual culpability of each defendant."
The Muslim Brotherhood, now outlawed by the military-backed authorities in Cairo, responded to the news on its official website, calling the verdict a "clear indication that the corrupt judiciary is being utilized by the coup commanders to suppress the Egyptian revolution and install a brutal regime."
"We will take all legal actions to appeal the court ruling and defend basic rights of Egyptians," the statement read. "Egyptian people will continue their peaceful revolution until justice is served."
Supporters set fire to a nearby school in protest, state television reported, though security officials said they had received no reports of unrest.
The charges against the convicted men include violence, inciting murder, storming a police station, attacking persons and damaging public and private property.
"This is the quickest case and the number sentenced to death is the largest in the history of the judiciary," said lawyer Nabil Abdel Salam, who defends some Brotherhood leaders, including Morsi.
"A second year student in the faculty of law would never issue this verdict," said Mohamed Zaree, program manager of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies.
"There are a lot of flaws in this verdict. I think maybe an appeal could be successful but nothing is predictable."
H.A. Hellyer, an Egypt expert and fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington expressed doubt that the sentences would be carried out.
"Nevertheless, the very issuing of the sentence itself is quite significant," he said.
On Tuesday, the Muslim Brotherhood's Supreme Guide, Mohamed Badie, and 682 others will face trial on charges of incitement to kill.
Only 123 of the defendants were in court on Monday. The remainder had either been released on bail, orwere on the run.
"When the trial starts on Saturday and it is just a procedural hearing, and the judge doesn't listen to any lawyers or witnesses and doesn't even call the defendants, you are before a group of thugs and not the judiciary," Walid, a relative of one of the defendants, told Reuters by phone.
The move comes as Al Jazeera journalists will be returning to court as part of their ongoing trial for spreading false news and being part of a terrorist organization.
Al Jazeera denies all charges levelled against its staff.
Al Jazeera and wire services. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.