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Absurd verdicts

CONFUSION reigned on Monday outside the court in Minya, southern Egypt. The judge, Saed Youssef, sentenced 683 men to death, among them the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie. At the same time, Judge Youssef commuted 492 earlier death sentences to life imprisonment. The Brotherhood's brief spell in power under Mohamed Morsi was ended with the help of the military in July last year. Since then, reprisals have been severe. The cause of the mass sentencing was what amounted to an uprising in Minya, the provincial capital in August, in which several churches and police stations were targeted, and a policeman was killed. Many of the accused, possibly up to 60 per cent, say that they were not even present. Mr Badie was known to be in Cairo. Witnesses were not called, and defence lawyers boycotted the trial in protest at not being allowed to defend their clients. An Amnesty International spokesman, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said: "The court has displayed a complete contempt for the most basic principles of a fair trial and has utterly destroyed its credibility. It is time for Egypt's authorities to come clean and acknowledge that the current system is neither fair nor independent or impartial."

A bizarre element in the affair is that most of those sentenced to death are still at liberty. The New York Times interviewed Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, aged 60, a head teacher. When first he heard that he had been accused of taking part in the mob violence, he went to the police to point out to them what was clearly a mistake. He has had serious heart surgery and walks with difficulty. The police insisted that the charges were correct - and then let him return home. He came back from a party on Monday to learn from his weeping wife that he had been sentenced to death. "We are living in absurdity," he said.

The rule of law is a vital element in any functioning state. When the courts are used for blatant political intimidation, there is no independent authority to which a citizen can appeal. It is gratifying that there have been strong protests from the international community. The awkwardness of a democratically elected Islamist government in Egypt stretched the ethical fibre of the liberal world, and this accounted for some of the relief when it was overthrown last summer. But the brutality with which the Muslim Brotherhood was suppressed coloured relations with the newly appointed regime. This latest example shows that the Egyptian government remains determined to discourage dissent. (Also on Monday, a left-leaning protest group was outlawed.)

The Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, happens to be visiting Washington to appeal for funds that were frozen during last year's unrest. It is to be hoped that the White House - which said that the Minya verdict "defies even the most basic standards of international justice" - will use the opportunity to remind Egypt of those standards.

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