CAIRO — Reflecting the Egyptian judiciary’s growing role in a wide-ranging crackdown against opponents of the interim government, a criminal court on Saturday sentenced more than 100 alleged supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood to 10 years in prison.
Across town in another Cairo courtroom, three journalists for the international broadcaster Al Jazeera English, jailed for more than four months on terror-related charges, made yet another appearance in a caged defendants’ dock. One of the accused, Australian correspondent Peter Greste, described their imprisonment and prosecution as a “massive injustice.”
Supporters noted that Saturday’s hearing, the seventh in the journalists’ case, fell on World Press Freedom Day, established by the United Nations two decades ago. The trial was adjourned until May 15.
International rights groups and Western governments have declared themselves troubled by Egypt’s now-routine use of mass trials in which defendants have little or no access to due process. The 102 sentenced in one fell swoop on Saturday were convicted of rioting and weapons possession.
Two notorious recent cases - one last month and one in March - resulted in more than 1,200 defendants being sentenced en masse to death by a judge in Minya, south of Cairo.
The three Al-Jazeera English journalists are among 20 defendants, initially described by the government as working for the Qatar-based broadcaster. But some of the accused are students, not journalists, and others, including a Dutch woman journalist who is being tried in absentia, has no connection with Al Jazeera.
Egypt has been feuding with Qatar, which owns Al Jazeera, about the Persian Gulf emirate’s opposition to the current military-backed government. Qatar was critical of the coup that removed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi from office in July, after enormous public protests demanding his ouster.
Morsi himself, along with thousands of supporters and hundreds of senior figures in the Muslim Brotherhood, is on trial for multiple alleged offenses. Several of the charges could carry the death penalty.
Against this backdrop, Saturday marked the official inaugural day of Egypt’s presidential campaign. The architect of the coup against Morsi, former Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Sisi, is expected to win easily, but there is one other contender in the race, liberal politician Hamdeen Sabahi.
The presidential vote is set for May 26-27.