Cairo – An Egyptian court on Saturday upheld death sentences against 75 people for participating in a 2013 sit-in protest in support of deposed President Mohammed Morsi.
Those convicted included senior officials in Morsi’s now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group, state television reported on its website.
BThirty-one of the 75 defendants were tried in absentia.
The head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, was sentenced to 25 years in jail in the same case.
In July, the Cairo Criminal Court recommended death sentences for the 75 defendants.
The court also announced that the sentences would be referred to the country’s chief Islamic Legal Authority, the grand mufti, for a non-binding opinion, as required by Egyptian law.
The same court issued Saturday’s ruling after consultations with the mufti.
The mufti’s opinion was not released but it appears that he did not take the unusual step of opposing the death sentences.
Among the accused in the case is award-winning photojournalist Mahmoud Abu Zeid, who was on Saturday given five years in prison.
Abu Zeid, also known as Shawkan, has been in jail since August 14, 2013, when he was arrested while covering the sit-in.
Procedures will now start for releasing Shawkan, 30, because he has already served more than five years in pre-trial detention, judicial sources said.
Shawkan in April won the 2018 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano Press Freedom Prize.
On Saturday, the court also sentenced 46 others to 25 years in prison each in the same case.
Prison terms ranging from 15 to five years were given to 612 co-defendants.
Charges were dropped against five other defendants who had died since the legal proceedings began.
The court also ruled that all the rulings could be appealed.
The case is related to the sit-in protest staged in mid-2013 by Morsi’s loyalists in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square in Cairo.
In August 2013, security forces cleared the protest with force.
The operation, in which hundreds of people were killed, came more than a month after the army deposed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected but divisive president.
The defendants were charged with murder, holding an armed gathering, damaging public property, illegal possession of weapons and belonging to an outlawed group, a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Rights group Amnesty International condemned Saturday’s verdicts.
“These sentences were handed down in a disgraceful mass trial of more than 700 people, and we condemn today’s verdict in the strongest terms,” said Najia Bounaim, the watchdog’s North Africa campaigns director.
“The death penalty should never be an option under any circumstances.
“The fact that not a single police officer has been brought to account for the killing of at least 900 people in the Rabaa and Nahda protests shows what a mockery of justice this trial was,” she added, citing another pro-Morsi sit-in held in mid-2013 near Cairo.
The Egyptian government has repeatedly said that the country’s judiciary operates independently.
Months after Morsi’s ouster, Egyptian authorities declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation and rounded up thousands of its members and loyalists in the toughest crackdown on the group since it was created in 1928.