STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A court in southern Egypt handed down another shocking decision today. The court sentenced 683 people to death. They are accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. That's the group that was once banned, and then legalized, and then had a candidate win a presidential election and is now banned again. The hundreds of death sentences were announced, today, by the same judge who caused an outcry last month by sentencing another 529 people to death.
NPR's Leila Fadel is covering this story from Cairo. Hi, Leila.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Hi.
INSKEEP: So how did this happen? What happened in court today?
FADEL: Well, this judge seems to be following the same script. It was only the second day of this trial, only about 50 of the defendants present, and he sentenced them all to death, including the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie. Outside, the families wept, saying their children weren't members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the banned organization that has been deemed a terrorist group by the government since the coup this summer.
And once again the defendants weren't given time or a chance to defend themselves and say they weren't inciting violence or they were inciting violence. They didn't have an opportunity to present a case.
INSKEEP: Can you help us understand - is that within the rules as they are being practiced in Egypt? Was this a legitimate passing of death sentences? Was this normal? And was it final?
FADEL: Well, this judge is known to hand down pretty harsh penalties. The lawyers, they've been trying to get him off these cases. And the same judge gave 529 people death sentences in March and then commuted them today - 492 of those death sentences were commuted to life sentences. And so this decision isn't completely final. It will have to be reviewed by the Islamic scholar here, the top Islamic scholar in Egypt and the final decision will be made on June 21st.
But it's quite a shocking decision and has caused international outcry for violating international human rights law.
INSKEEP: OK. So he commuted most but not all of the previous wave of death sentences. Now we have 683 new death sentences. Is there any indication here whether the judge is acting of his own volition or according to the will of the government?
FADEL: Well, speaking to observers and lawyers, this judge seems to be acting independently, but he's acting within a system that is conducting mass trials quite regularly. People being convicted almost daily for inciting violence and other accusations and many of those lawyers, human rights groups, saying that they're not given the opportunity to really defend themselves. And the government is using rule of law to repress and stop any dissent against the state.
INSKEEP: Well, what does this mean for dissenters, and in particular, what does this mean for the Muslim Brotherhood? Still a very large organization whose candidate won the last presidential election.
FADEL: Well, many analysts say by driving the Muslim Brotherhood underground, it's really opening space for more extremism. If Islamists are told democracy is not an option for you - you can be elected, ousted, and then pushed back underground - then people are worried that young men are going to see violence as the only option. And it's not just the Muslim Brotherhood that is now being barred in Egypt.
Today the Court of Urgent Matters here banned the activities of a revolutionary youth group called April Sixth which was a major contributor to the 2011 uprising against Mubarak. Now that group has been banned and its cofounder has been in prison for months now.
INSKEEP: The Court of Urgent Matters?
FADEL: Yes. The Court of Urgent Matters, which made a decision based on a lawsuit against April Sixth has restricted access. And that's the same court that originally banned the Muslim Brotherhood.
INSKEEP: OK, Leila. Thanks as always.
FADEL: Thank you so much.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Egypt where a judge has sentenced 683 people to death today. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.