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Brotherhood trials raise fears of fresh violence

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is facing a wave of trials. Although courts have dismissed charges against many protesters, the country fears yet more violence when the main trials against the Islamists began on Monday.

A lower Egyptian court in Cairo, over the weekend, acquitted 155 Islamist protesters, according to state media on Sunday (08.12.13). At the same time, an appeals court in Alexandria ordered the release of 21 female Islamist protesters, including 14 women previously sentenced to 11 years in jail.

But the mood remains tense across the country as Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood braces for the largest wave of court cases in its 85-year history. The trials began on Monday (09.12.13), with more than 2,000 prisoners, dozens of accused, and allegations that range from corruption, to instigating murder and committing treason. One month ago, a Cairo court ordered the Islamist organization to be dissolved and now the government is taking on the former leadership of the group.

On October 29, the head of the organization, Mohammed Badie, chief strategist Khairat el-Shater, as well as several others, appeared in court. Former President Mohammed Morsi, faces several trials, with one that began on November 4. Technically, the trials against the Brotherhood kicked off back in August, but were postponed until the end of October.

Information on the proceedings against Morsi is sparse though. Human rights lawyer Ahmed Usman from Cairo told DW that "until now, no one is allowed to meet with Morsi, not even his lawyers. In the case of (his predecessor) Hosni Mubarak, the defense team could prepare with the defendant. In the case of Morsi though there's no contact." The ousted president is bein held by the army at an undisclosed location.

A whole host of trials

Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi (photo: Ueslei Marcelino)

Morsi is being held at a secret location waiting for his trials to begin

The list of accusations against the leading figures of the Brotherhood is long. Morsi allegedly broke out of a prison near Cairo during the 2011 revolution. He's also accused of having plotted together with Hamas against Egypt. The first trial will most likely focus on the claims that during the mass protests in December 2012, Morsi ordered violence against the protesters. Many of the other members of the Muslim Brotherhood are also accused of instigating violence and the possession of weapons without license. Observers expect at least a dozen court cases and hundreds of defendants - many of whom could - if found guilty - face the death penalty.

Many Egyptians fear that the trials might spark fresh violent riots between Morsi supporters and the police. But political scientist Hassan Abu Taleb of the Al-Ahram Research Center thinks it's right to stick with the trials. "Should the government decide to halt such court cases, it would mean that the blackmailing by the Muslim Brotherhood would have been successful. It would be a clear sign that the government is very weak."

Political show trials?

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood though are warning of political show trials - a concern shared by many human rights activists in the country. They not only criticize the accusations that portray the organization as an international terror group, but also point out that there's not enough legal aid given to the defendants. A lawyer who was supposed to defend Morsi fled the country after receiving threats. Several lawyers close to the Brotherhood are also in jail. As a result many of the prominent defendants are refusing to cooperate during questioning. According to Egyptian officials, Morsi insists he still is the rightful president of the country and refuses to respond to the allegations brought against him.

There are more Brotherhood members on trial than there were in the trials against the Mubarak regime and the accusations are more serious. Observers see this as an indication that the trials are first and foremost serving a political goal: Lawyer Usman sees them as a continuation of the power struggle between Islamists and the military. "To a large degree the trials are about revenge. It's about one group that wants to get into power and a second group that's trying to destroy them."

A supporter of Egypt's ousted President Mohammed Morsi (Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Many Egyptians fear the trials could trigger fresh waves of violence

Calls for transitional justice

Usman also criticizes the lack of transparency in the judiciary. So far it's not even known where the trials will be held, whether journalists or observers will be allowed in and it's unclear whether the trials will be broadcast.

Opponents and supporters of the Brotherhood alike agree that the trials will not contribute to the process of reconciliation. Activists are pushing for a period of transitional justice instead, hoping that this could help toward an independent investigation of both the crimes during the Mubarak and the Morsi regimes.

Hassan Abu Taleb, one of the supporters of the concept, says that "a commission should be responsible for coming up with and passing a special law. It could lay out the steps to get a process of reconciliation going."

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