Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston.
A shocking verdict in Egypt today; 529 people sentenced to death, all of them convicted of murdering one policeman, during an attack last year on a police station. The case is part of a crackdown by Egypt's military-backed government on the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, and on supporters of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Sheera Frenkel is Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed, she joins us now from Cairo. So are these people really going to be put to death, or is this just a headline grabber - a really extreme headline grabber?
Sheera Frenkel: You know, that's the question that everyone's asking right now. The verdict itself still has has to go to the Grand Mufti, and in the past he has upheld these sorts of verdicts. And all those defendants, all 541 defendants, will have the chance to launch an appeal, and their lawyers have certainly said that they're going to do so.
But you know, really, it's anyone's guess whether they're going to be successful. Egypt's courts have taken a very, very strong line against this sort of violence, especially when the defendants are being accused of also being members of the Muslim Brotherhood. So a lot of their families, who we spoke with today, said that they're not hugely hopeful that they'll get those verdicts overturned.
Werman: So the details of this are pretty striking, too. The verdict came down after two court sessions, and defendants were banned from the courtroom. I mean, how do they figure, just practically speaking, 529 people can kill one policeman?
Frenkel: Well, yeah, that's also quite confusing, because when we spoke to the lawyers who were involved in the defense of those more than 500 people, they said that it wasn't actually even clear to them which among the 500 were being charged with the murder of the police officer, and which were being charged with taking part in a protest.
They weren't given any time to evaluate the individual files of those more than 500 people, and so it was impossible for them to adequately defend them.
One of them actually joked with me, when we sat down and spoke, that it wouldn't have even mattered if he had time to review the defense files, since he wasn't actually allowed to present any manner of defense, or even voice any objections in the court.
Werman: So tomorrow, there's another case involving a more than 600 defendants, I read. Are death sentences expected in that one, too?
Frenkel: Well, tomorrow the trial's going to be for 683. These, by the way, are record-breaking numbers here in Egypt. And according to lawyers that are also involved in those trials, yes, the death penalty will be on the table.
One lawyer I spoke to said to me that quite a few lawyers are gathering tonight, and are considering not showing up to court tomorrow in a sort of protest. They feel like Egypt's judicial system has become increasing politicized and that their defendants won't get a fair trial.
Werman: So Sheera, what does this extreme number of death sentences tell us about the state of politics in Egypt right now?
Frenkel: Well, human rights lawyers say that this shows how politicized Egypt's judicial system has really become. The fact that the courts are absolutely overflowing trying to process all of those thousands of people we saw arrested from the day that Egyptian military overthrew the government, here on July 3rd, 2013.
They're just trying to cope with what is an unprecedented situation here. And there is this sense, among at least some of the human rights activists here, that there is pressure being put on them to find these people guilty.
Whether or not that's the case, I can't say, but Egypt's foreign ministry did speak today, and said that there was no pressure, and that the verdict of the trial had all due process of the law.
Werman: I mean, one would've seen a lot of weird and sometimes horrifying things under Hosni Mubarak. Would you have seen 529 people sentenced to death under him?
Frenkel: No, and actually we were looking at previous verdicts, in the years of 1980 to 2000. Only 700 people were sentenced to death during that entire time.
Werman: And we can't really see this in a vacuum, either. I mean, you've got journalists like Al Jazeera's Peter Greste, and his colleagues, on trial. Also, two former heads of state; Hosni Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, both churning their ways through the wheels of justice. Do Egyptians have any faith in their judicial system?
Frenkel: I think a great deal of Egyptians do have faith in the judicial system here. For a long time, the judicial system in Egypt was upheld as a sort of a beacon of truth, and quite a few Egyptians I spoke to today, and yesterday, said that they did have hope. That through these trials, that both Al Jazeera journalists would be released, and activists that are currently in jail would be released.
But this is new times in Egypt; we're sort of in uncharted waters here. And so I think people are sort of waiting these next few months to see what sort of verdicts the courts return, and that'll tell them, going forward, what they can expect from the judiciary.
Werman: Sheera Frenkel, Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed, speaking with us from Cairo. Greatly appreciate your time, Sheera. Thanks.
Frenkel: Thank you.