Egypt court confirms death sentence for Brotherhood head, 13 others

CAIRO (AFP) - A Cairo court confirmed death sentences for Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 13 others on Saturday, and jailed a US-Egyptian citizen for life over Islamist protest violence.

Two of the 14 defendants sentenced to death have fled the country and will immediately face a retrial if apprehended.

Judge Mohamed Nagy Shehata also handed life terms to 23 detained defendants.

The defendants were accused of plotting unrest from their headquarters in a sprawling Cairo protest camp in the months after the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013.

Among those sentenced to life in prison was Mohamed Soltan, a US-Egyptian citizen who is on hunger strike.

His father Salah Soltan was among the 11 detainees sentenced to death.

US State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf called in a statement for his release on "humanitarian grounds", saying Washington was "deeply disappointed" by the ruling.

The rulings can be appealed before the Court of Cassation, which has overturned dozens of other death sentences, including against Badie.

So far, Egypt has executed one Islamist sentenced to death after Morsi's overthrow, following his conviction of involvement in the murder of a youth during violent protests in July 2013.

Shehata, who has sentenced dozens of Islamists to death in other cases, read out a Koranic verse that stipulates amputation and crucifixion for outlaws, before giving his verdict on Saturday.

At a previous hearing, he had sought the opinion of the country's mufti, the Islamic legal authority, on the death sentences.

The mufti has an advisory role under Egyptian law.

Known as the "Rabaa Operations Room" case, the prosecution accused the defendants of organising months of unrest and protests against the ouster of Morsi, a senior Brotherhood figure himself now on trial.

The Rabaa al-Adawiya protest camp in Cairo was dispersed by police on August 14, 2013 in a 12-hour operation that left hundreds of protesters and about 10 policemen dead.

Mohamed Soltan was shot in the arm and arrested days later as police hunted down Islamist activists who had fled the protest camp.

Police moved in to disperse the camp after weeks of failed European and US-brokered negotiations with the Brotherhood, which publicly insisted on Morsi's return.

The Islamist was the country's first freely elected president, and he ruled only for a year before the army toppled him, spurred by massive protests demanding his resignation.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former army chief who toppled Morsi and then won an election, has pledged to eradicate the Brotherhood.

The government has blacklisted the movement as a terrorist organisation amid a spike in militant attacks which have killed dozens of policemen and soldiers.

The deadliest attacks have been claimed by Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula and in Cairo, and the Brotherhood insists it is committed to non-violence.

But decapitated and driven underground, the Islamist movement is believed to have radicalised, with members opting to use militant tactics against policemen.