Ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi escaped a death sentence Tuesday when a criminal court handed him a 20-year prison term in connection with a deadly protest that took place during his tenure in office.
It was the first in an expected series of verdicts and sentencings of the ex-leader, an Islamist who was removed in a coup led by the then-Defense Minister and now President Abdel Fattah Sisi. Morsi, jailed since being deposed amid huge protests against his rule in the summer of 2013, still faces several other capital cases.
The verdict in many ways reflected the decimation of what had for decades been a powerful social force in Egypt. In the nearly 22 months since the ouster, Sisi has led a wide-ranging crackdown against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which was once the country’s biggest political movement.
Thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members or supporters are jailed. Hundreds more, including some of Morsi’s top deputies, have been sentenced to long prison terms or death in proceedings denounced by human rights groups as unfair.
Hundreds of other Morsi supporters were killed in street protests that erupted in the wake of his ouster. The Egyptian government has since criminalized unauthorized demonstrations, and police routinely use deadly force against protesters, both Islamist and secular.
Morsi, the country’s first freely elected leader, insists he is still Egypt’s legitimate president and has refused to recognize the court’s authority. He was allowed to speak in his own defense in a court appearance in January in an espionage case, but other than that, he has been largely muzzled, making most appearances in a soundproof glassed-in cage.
On Tuesday, as has been the usual practice, the former president was brought to the heavily guarded courtroom by helicopter, flown there from the high-security prison outside the port city of Alexandria where he has been held. When the sentence was read out, the caged defendants flashed their trademark four-fingered salute in a token of defiance. The salute is a reference to the Rabaa al Adawiya mosque, site of one bloody crackdown on pro-Morsi protesters.
The Brotherhood’s leadership-in-exile denounced the legal proceedings as a sham. Spokesman Amr Darrag, a former Cabinet minister under Morsi who is now based in Istanbul, called Tuesday’s verdict a “travesty of justice … scripted and controlled by the government and entirely unsupported by evidence.”
The intense security surrounding Morsi’s various trials reflects the government’s assertion – accepted by many Egyptians -- that the Brotherhood is a dangerous terrorist group. The group has been formally branded as such by Egyptian authorities, although it has denied involvement in violence.
In the ruling, Morsi and his 14 co-defendants were acquitted of the most serious charges, premeditated murder and possessing weapons. The 20-year sentence was for his conviction on charges that included inciting violence and torture in connection with 2012 clashes outside the presidential palace that left 10 people dead.