Egypt death sentence ruling a 'big step backwards': Amnesty

LONDON (AFP) - Rights group Amnesty on Saturday strongly criticised a decision by an Egyptian court to confirm death sentences for more than 180 Islamists, accusing the judiciary of losing "any semblance of impartiality".

The court in the central city of Minya had initially sentenced 683 people to death, but on Saturday it commuted death sentences of four defendants to life in prison, including two women, and acquitted 496 others, prosecutor Abdel Rahim Abdel Malik told AFP.

"In recent months Egyptian courts appear to have handed out death sentences at the drop of a hat," said Ms Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

"The Egyptian authorities must quash these sentences and order a fair retrial," she added. "The death penalty is being ruthlessly deployed as a tool to eliminate political opponents... These executions are a big step backwards for human rights in Egypt. The Egyptian judiciary has lost any semblance of impartiality and credibility."

Muslim Brotherhood chief Mohamed Badie was among those whose death sentences were confirmed.

Since the army ousted Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in July last year, hundreds of his supporters and Badie himself have been sentenced to death in trials roundly criticised by human rights watchdogs.

The 183 Islamists sentenced to death were accused of involvement in the murder and attempted murder of policemen in Minya province on August 14, the day the police killed hundreds of Mursi supporters during clashes in Cairo.