Egypt's ousted president Mursi faces death penalty in spy, jailbreak trials

Ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi is seen behind bars during his trial at a court in Cairo on April 30, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi is seen behind bars during his trial at a court in Cairo on April 30, 2015. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

CAIRO (AFP) - Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Mursi, already jailed for 20 years for inciting violence against protesters, faces the death penalty on Saturday for espionage and jailbreak nearly two years after his overthrow.

The country's first freely elected president was ousted by then army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in July 2013 following mass street protests demanding the Islamist's resignation after just a year in power.

His overthrow triggered a government crackdown on his Muslim Brotherhood movement in which hundreds of people have died and thousands been imprisoned.

Rights groups accuse Sisi's regime - widely backed by Egyptians tired of years of political turmoil - of using the judiciary as a tool to repress opposition.

Mursi was sentenced last month to 20 years in jail for inciting violence against protesters in 2012 when he was president, in a verdict Amnesty International denounced as a "travesty of justice".

On Saturday, a judge will issue verdicts in two other trials on charges that could mean the death penalty.

An initial death penalty verdict in a mass trial is usually confirmed at a later hearing after receiving the approval of the mufti, the official interpreter of Islamic law.

In Saturday's first case, Mursi and 130 others, including dozens of members of the Palestinian Hamas movement and Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah group, are accused of escaping from prisons and attacking police during the 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

- 27 in custody -

Twenty-seven defendants including Mursi are in custody, while the rest, including prominent Qatar-based cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, were tried in absentia.

Some 850 people were killed during the anti-Mubarak uprising as protesters rallied primarily against decades of police abuses.

Four years after that revolt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been blamed for most of the unrest in Egypt.

Sisi has vowed to eradicate the Brotherhood, an 87-year-old movement that topped successive polls between Mubarak's fall and Mursi's presidential election victory in May 2012.

The authorities designated it a terrorist group in December 2013, making even verbal expressions of support punishable by stiff jail terms.

In Saturday's second case, Mursi and 35 co-defendants, including Brotherhood leaders, are accused of conspiring with foreign powers, Hamas and Shiite Iran to destabilise Egypt.

They are accused of providing the Islamic republic's elite Revolutionary Guards with security reports in order to destabilise the country.

Prosecutors say the defendants carried out espionage activity on behalf of the international Muslim Brotherhood organisation and Hamas from 2005 to August 2013 "with the aim of perpetrating terror attacks in the country in order to spread chaos and topple the state".

During Mursi's presidency, ties flourished between Cairo and Hamas, the Palestinian affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood which controls neighbouring Gaza.

But Egypt's new authorities accuse Hamas of helping militants carry out attacks inside the country.

In addition to Saturday's verdicts, Mursi faces two other trials - for insulting the judiciary, and spying for Qatar, a key backer of the Muslim Brotherhood.