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Why an Egyptian appeals court overturned 149 death sentences

The grounds for the appeals court ruling are still unclear, but the new trial will be held in a criminal court.

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    Supporter of Egypt's ousted President Hosni Mubarak hold masks with Mubarak's face during a session at the Cairo High Court in Egypt. Mubarak is being retried over the killing of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that ended his nearly three decades in power.
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Egypt's Court of Cassation, the country's highest appeals court, on Wednesday ordered a retrial for 149 activists of the banned Muslim Brotherhood sentenced to death.

The activists were handed capital sentences for allegedly storming a police station in 2013 and killing 11 policemen and two civilians in a mob attack, a judicial source said.

The grounds for the appeals court ruling are still unclear, but the new trial will be held in a criminal court, and the defendants will have the right to appeal the verdict at the high court.

The initial ruling took place in February 2015, amid a series of death sentences and mass trials that were criticized internationally, as the government cracked down on Muslim Brotherhood activists and supporters of ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

Mr. Morsi became Egypt's first democratically elected president after the downfall of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011 but was himself overthrown by the army in 2013 after mass protests against his rule. The overthrow of Morsi ushered in the worst domestic bloodshed in the country’s modern history, according to human rights observers.

The Egyptian government has long drawn criticism from Western governments and human rights organizations for cracking down on Morsi supporters. Since the Egyptian leader was ousted from power in July 2013, hundreds of Morsi's Islamist supporters have been killed, thousands jailed, and dozens sentenced to death.

The United Nations has continually condemned the crackdowns and mass trials that have left thousands of Brotherhood members and supporters jailed, calling them "unprecedented in recent history.”

Despite the outcry from rights advocates, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi vowed to speed up the legal process to allow for quicker enforcement of death sentences last June after the assassination of Egypt’s public prosecutor, Hisham Barakat.

"The hand of justice is shackled by the law. We're not going to wait for this," Mr. Sisi said. "We're going to amend the law to allow us to implement justice as soon as possible."

But since then, things have changed with the court overturning several death penalties, a move that has been widely welcome by many rights advocates.

Last December, the same court overturned death sentences against Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie and 36 others who were accused of “setting up an ‘operations room" for the Rabaa al-Adawiya sit-in organized by Brotherhood supporters after the military toppled then-President Morsi, according to Al Jazeera.

Mr. Badie is, however, facing other trials, and has been sentenced to death in a separate case along with Mr. Morsi for plotting prison breaks and attacks on police during the 2011 uprising. Last month, the Egyptian Justice Minister vowed to make sure that Morsi and Muslim Brotherhood members convicted to death sentence will be executed if the appeal court upholds the sentences, the Middle East Eye reported.

Under Egyptian law, death sentences are referred to the mufti, the government's interpreter of Islamic law, who plays an advisory role. If he approves, convictions are still subject to a lengthy appeals process.

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