CAIRO — An Egyptian court Monday sentenced to death nearly 530 suspected backers of ousted President Mohammed Morsi over a deadly attack on a police station, capping a swift, two-day mass trial in which defense attorneys were not allowed to present their case.
It was the largest single batch of death sentences in the world in recent years, Amnesty International said. The U.S. State Department said it "defies logic" that so many people could get a fair trial in just two sessions.
The verdicts by a court in the city of Minya are subject to appeal and are likely to be overturned.
But the outcome stunned human rights activists and raised fears that the rule of law is being swept away in the crackdown waged by the military-backed interim government against Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood since his overthrow last summer.
"It turns the judiciary in Egypt from a tool for achieving justice into an instrument for taking revenge," said Mohammed Zarie, a human rights lawyer in Cairo.
Egypt's Foreign Ministry brushed off the criticism, saying in a statement that the judiciary is "entirely independent and is not influenced in any way by the executive branch of government."
The government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, a claim it denies. Some 16,000 people have been arrested since Morsi's ouster, including most of the group's top leaders as well as large numbers swept up by police during pro-Morsi protests.
In the case decided Monday, 545 defendants were charged with murder, attempted murder, joining an outlawed group aiming at toppling the regime and stealing government weapons in connection with the attack in August in the town of Matay, south of Cairo. The town's deputy police chief, Mohammed al-Attar, was killed in the violence.
The bloodshed was part of nationwide rioting sparked when security forces stormed two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo and killed over 600 people.
The state news agency and a judicial official said 528 defendants were found guilty and handed death sentences, while the rest were acquitted, though some officials put the number at 529 convicted. All but about 150 of the defendants were tried in absentia and will get retrials if captured.