Egypt's ex-leader Mursi faces possible death penalty in first verdict

CAIRO (AFP) - Egypt's ex-president Mohamed Mursi faces being sentenced to death on Tuesday on charges of inciting the killing of protestors in the first verdict against him nearly two years after his fall from power.

He also faces the death penalty in two other trials, including one in which he is accused of spying for foreign powers, and escaping from prison during the 2011 anti-Mubarak revolt.

Separate verdicts in those two cases are due on May 16.

A death sentence on Tuesday against Egypt's first freely elected president cannot be ruled out, experts say, especially since judges have already passed harsh verdicts against leaders of his blacklisted Muslim Brotherhood.

Mursi was toppled by the then army chief - and now president - Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on July 3, 2013 after mass street protests against his year-long rule.

The new authorities then launched a sweeping crackdown on his supporters in which more than 1,400 people were killed and thousands jailed.

Hundreds have been sentenced to death after speedy mass trials which the United Nations called "unprecedented in recent history".

The authorities have also targeted secular and liberal activists who spearheaded the 2011 uprising against long-time autocrat Husni Mubarak, Mursi's predecessor.

In November, a court dropped murder charges against Mubarak in his own trial over the deaths of hundreds of protesters in 2011.

Sisi's regime is widely popular among Egyptians tired of more than four years of political turmoil, but rights groups say it is more repressive than under Mubarak.

Tuesday's verdict involves a case in which Mursi and 14 other defendants, seven of whom are on the run, are charged with the killing of three protesters and torturing several more during clashes in front of the presidential palace on December 5, 2012.

The protesters were demonstrating against a Mursi decree that put him above judicial review when they clashed with his supporters.

Defence lawyers say there is no proof Mursi incited the clashes, and that most of those killed were Brotherhood members.

- 'Justice highly politicised' -

Even if Mursi escapes the death penalty, he could still face life in jail.

"Justice is highly politicised and verdicts are rarely based on objective elements," Karim Bitar from the Paris-based Institute of International and Strategic Relations told AFP.

Mursi's supporters were the target of a government "witch-hunt", he added.

If a death sentence is passed, it is unlikely to be carried out, said H A Hellyer of the Washington-based Brookings Centre for Middle East Policy.

"The execution of Mursi would represent an escalation by the Egyptian authorities that they do not appear willing to engage in," said Hellyer.

"Internationally, it will be received badly that an elected president overthrown via a military incursion into politics, even if that military is popular, is then dealt a harsh judicial sentence."

The verdict is also open to appeal.

A harsh sentence will nevertheless be a nail in the coffin of the Brotherhood, as Sisi has vowed to "eradicate" the 85-year-old movement that staged major electoral gains between Mubarak's fall and Mursi's presidential victory in May 2012.

Almost all of its leaders face harsh sentences, and in December 2013, the movement was designated a "terrorist group," with the authorities blaming it for near daily attacks on the security forces.

In a country where the army has been in power for decades, Sisi's May 2014 presidential victory crushed hopes raised since the popular anti-Mubarak revolt of a civilian democracy.

The extent of anti-Brotherhood repression "is unprecedented in the history of the Brotherhood and could push its supporters to extremism", said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, professor of political science at Cairo University.

Militants, mainly the Egyptian affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group, have claimed attacks on security forces in retaliation for the crackdown on Mursi supporters.

The Brotherhood itself denies resorting to violence.