By Mick Krever, CNN
An Egyptian official urged on Tuesday that a death sentence for 528 supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood be put “in perspective.”
The people in question were “implicated in acts of sabotage and violent offenses,” Salah Abdel Sadek, chairman of Egypt's State Information Service, told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.
“There is the right to challenge the verdict.”
An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced the defendants on charges related to violent riots in the southern Egyptian city of Minya last August, including the murder of a police officer, the country's official news agency said.
The riots took place after a deadly crackdown by security forces on two large sit-ins in Cairo, where demonstrators were supporting ousted President Mohammed Morsy.
Sadek insisted that the Egyptian judiciary is independent, free from interference of “executive authority.”
“Egypt does not have an independent judiciary”, Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Institution, and author of “Temptations of Power,” told Amanpour. “It’s a very politicized judiciary.”
“And let’s recall [the judiciary] played a very active role in supporting the military coup on July 3rd . So we can’t treat Egypt as a normal democratic state, where there’s a separation of powers.”
Hamid called the decision the “largest mass death sentence in modern Egyptian history.”
The government is trying to use a “populist moment in Egyptian history,” Hamid said, “to deliver what they hope to be a decisive blow against the Brotherhood.”
“This isn’t just a regime that’s acting on its own. It has the passionate, enthusiastic support of millions of Egyptians…There’s a kind of bloodlust on the popular level.”
Egypt has been ruled by a military-backed government since President Mohamed Morsy was deposed last July just one year after being elected.
The country will soon hold presidential elections, and if the military chief Field Marshal Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi as expected, analysts say he will assuredly win.
“At the very beginning we were comparing it to the Mubarak regime,” Hamid said. “Now those comparisons aren’t even appropriate. We have to go all the way back to the Nasser era to see this level of oppression, [and] I think in many ways it has surpassed that.”
“The sheer level of oppression we’ve seen since the coup is unprecedented.”
Also under in the government’s vice are journalists.
Three Al Jazeera journalists – including one, Mohamed Fahmy, who has previously worked for CNN – were again in court on Monday facing charges of spreading false news and belonging to a terrorist organization, which Al Jazeera strongly denies.
“We don’t have many journalists in custody or in jail,” Sadek, the information chief, said. “We have people who have broken the Egyptian law and they are being dealt with the normal Egyptian law, not with an exceptional or emergency [law] or anything like that.”
“We don’t imprison journalists,” he said.
Amanpour struck back, saying “Everybody knows that these are politically trumped-up charges.”
The government abides by “our Egyptian law,” Sadek said. “Of course we care about opinions and about reactions. And that’s why I’m talking to you now.”
“Either they are going to be freed for not being guilty of anything, or they are going to be – to have some kind of a verdict against what they have done.”