JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the continuing crackdown in Egypt, this time in the courts; 638 suspected Islamists stood trial today on charges of murder or attempted murder during attacks on police stations back in August. No defense lawyers were present.

Yesterday, in a similar scene, more than 500 suspected supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood were sentenced to death.

We explore these developments with former State Department Middle East specialist Michele Dunne. She’s now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

MICHELE DUNNE, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Dunne, what were the charges that the court said these people were guilty of?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, they said they were guilty of rioting that led to the death of one — one single police officer. And they convicted, as you said, more than 500.

And there were about 147 of those people in custody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, not all of them?

MICHELE DUNNE: Many of them are at large. But, still, we’re looking at nearly 150 people who could potentially be executed for the death of a single police officer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what kind of a trial was it? It was less than a day, several hours long, no defense lawyers present. What was it like?

MICHELE DUNNE: There were two very brief sessions, two very brief court sessions over a couple of days, I think, less than an hour each.

There were apparently — there were lots of — thousands of pages of evidence, but they were not reviewed. The defense lawyers couldn’t present their arguments. It really — it was nothing that you would call a trial.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are the people who are being charged? If you add it all up, it’s over a thousand people. Who are they?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, these — by the way, these are not the only cases. There are some other mass trials going on, because right now in Egypt, there are close to 19,000 people who have been detained since last summer.

About 2,500 or so of those are considered to be political leaders of the Brotherhood. The rest of them are people who were picked up in demonstrations, demonstrations protesting the removal of former President Morsi last summer.

So, they’re all kinds of people. They’re not — certainly not all Brotherhood supporters. And there are even small numbers of women and children among them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does this — this system of putting people on trial, convicting them, and sentencing them to death in the same day — we know in the second trial, they said the sentencing will come a little later. What does this say about the regime in power right now in Egypt?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, there’s been a massive crackdown going on since last summer against particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, but also against their forms of dissent, against some secular activists and journalists and so forth as well.

Now, we don’t really know the sentencing that took place of over 500, whether this was the initiative of a particular judge or whether it was a kind of an instruction from higher up in the Egyptian government.

But I would say there have been a series of steps that have attempted to close down dissent in Egypt. You will recall there was the very violent breakup of a sit-in this Cairo in which hundreds and hundreds were killed. They passed a law outlawing demonstrations. They declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and said anyone who goes out to demonstrate in favor of Morsi could be sentenced to five years in prison just for showing up at a demonstration.

And then there have been a number of these harsh sentencings. Just recently, a group of students at Al-Azhar University were given more than 14 years for destroying some university offices, in which no one was killed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what effect is all this having, Michele, on dissent in Egypt?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, it goes on.

So, there are several things going on. I mean, there’s dissent. There are still weekly protests protesting the removal of Morsi, despite all these harsh measures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The former president?


Terrorists — and then there’s terrorism. There are terrorist groups based in the Sinai who are attacking police officers and military officers. And there are also a lot of small-scale what I would call sort of revenge attacks on police officers, just someone on a motorcycle shooting.

So, in Egypt nowadays, there’s almost a police officer killed every day.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if you step out — if you participate in some of these actions, the — basically, what the courts are saying is, we’re going to come down hard on you?

MICHELE DUNNE: Yes, absolutely.

I mean, and I think they’re — they are sort of waiting to see whether these very harsh sentences will stick. Now, there was a big outcry in the international community. In Egypt, I think, the sentiment about sentencing these hundreds of people to death is much more mixed. There are supporters of military who really want to see the Muslim Brotherhood eradicated. And they spoke up in favor of these sentences.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it believed that the courts are going to carry out these sentences, the capital punishment?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, there’s the possibility of appeal.

And then the highest — the Muslim religious leader, the mufti, has an ability to review these sentences. So, there are a couple of possibilities that they could be overturned or lessened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michele Dunne, we thank you very much.

MICHELE DUNNE: Thanks, Judy.


This interview was originally broadcast on PBS' NewsHour.