Last Updated Apr 28, 2014 11:05 AM EDT
MINYA, Egypt -- A judge in Egypt on Monday sentenced to death 683 alleged supporters of the country's ousted Islamist president, including the Muslim Brotherhood's spiritual leader, the latest in mass trials that have drawn international condemnation and stunned rights groups.
The same judge also upheld the death penalty for 37 of 529 defendants sentenced in a similar case in March, though he commuted the rest of the sentences to life imprisonment.
Still, the 37 death sentences - which can be appealed in a higher court - remain an extraordinarily high number for Egypt, compared to the dramatic trial in the wake of the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat, when only five people were sentenced to death and executed.
Among those convicted and sentenced to death on Monday was Mohamed Badie, the Brotherhood's spiritual guide. If his sentence is confirmed, it would make him the most senior Brotherhood figure sentenced to death since one of the group's leading ideologues, Sayed Qutb, was sentenced and executed in 1966.
In announcing the 683 death sentences for violence and the killing of policemen, Judge Said Youssef on Monday also said he was referring his ruling to the Grand Mufti, the nation's top Islamic official - a requirement under Egyptian law, but one that is considered a formality. It does, however, give a window of opportunity for a judge to reverse an initial sentence.
Both Monday's and the March trial are linked to deadly riots that erupted in Minya and elsewhere in Egypt after security forces violently disbanded sit-ins held by Brotherhood supporters in Cairo last August. Three policemen and a civilian were killed in those riots.
Hundreds were killed as part of a sweeping campaign against supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi, ousted by the military last July. The removal of Morsi - a year after he was elected - came after millions demonstrated against his rule, demanding he step down for abuse of power.
After Monday's ruling, which followed a single session in the case held last month, Sarah Leah Whitson, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, said the defendants were not given the chance to properly defend themselves. The proceedings went on without the judge even verifying that the defendants were present, she said.
"The fact that the death sentences can be appealed provides little solace to hundreds of families that will go to sleep tonight facing the very real prospect that their loves ones could be executed without having an opportunity to present a case in court," she said. "There is no more serious violation of the most basic right of due process and the right to a fair trial than that."
Badie was not at the hearing in Minya on Monday but in another court, in Cairo, where he faces charges of murder and incitement to murder along with 16 other Brotherhood leaders in a case connected to deadly protests outside the group's headquarters last June.
Once the Mufti reviews Monday's ruling, the same court will hold another session on June 21 to issue the final verdicts.
As the ruling was announced, an outcry erupted outside the court among the families and relatives of the defendants. Women fainted and wailed as many cried out, "Why? This is unfair!"
"My three sons are inside," said a woman who only gave her first name, Samiya, as she screamed in grief. "I have no one but God."
Sitting on the pavement in front of the police cordon, 58-year-old Fatma, who also would not give her second name fearing for her relative on trial, broke into tears and screamed: "This judge is a butcher."
The father of another defendant, Mohammed Hassan Shehata, said his son Mahmoud was arrested in January, six months after the alleged violence he was charged with.
"There is no evidence whatsoever," he said. "If my son is guilty, behead him but if he is innocent, there will be a civil war."
Another woman who also only gave her first name, Safiya, 48, could not believe her brother and son were sentenced to death. "I swear, they don't even pray, they don't go to mosques," she said. "They are not Muslim Brotherhood."
Lawyer Ali Kamal, said Monday's hearing lasted only eight minutes. Security forces surrounded the court building and blocked roads, preventing families and media from attending the proceedings.
"This is against the spirit of the law," Kamal said.
But in the capital, Cairo, where many are strongly anti-Brotherhood, several residents said they approved of the death sentences.
"Even if they sentence a million people to death, so what?" said Sadeek el-Moghazi, a 43-year-old newspaper seller in the eastern district of Heliopolis. "This is the best ruling in the history of the Egyptian judiciary."
Howaida, a 40-year-old conservative woman who also only gave her first name, said she welcome the ruling because the Brotherhood "did nothing good to the country when they ruled."
According to a judicial official who oversaw the investigation in the case, evidence presented in the trial consisted mostly of footage of the defendants showing them attacking and looting a police station in Cairo and setting fire to several government buildings. The defendants faced nearly 14 charges, five of them punishable by death, said the official.
"This is a public opinion case, there must be a swift, deterrent punishment," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. "Yes, the verdict is very harsh, the number of people on trial is shocking, but it's proportional to the crimes."
If the "Grand Mufti upholds the death sentences for all or recommends reversing them, it won't mean anything to the judge," he added. "Only the judge has the right and the power to reverse his earlier decisions."
In the surprise reversal on Monday, the judge commuted the death sentences for all but 37 defendants in the March trial of 529 alleged Islamist supporters. The remaining defendants were given life sentences.
The March ruling had brought heavy international criticism from the United Nations, United States and European Union.
At the time, Amnesty International called the death sentences "grotesque" and Egyptian rights groups were stunned at the swift verdicts, passed after only one hearing - and without defense presenting its case.
Egypt's interim, military-backed government has branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group, a claim it denies.
Some 16,000 people have been arrested since the military ousted Morsi last July, including most of the group's top leaders. Large numbers of pro-Morsi protesters have also been rounded up and detained by police.
In a press conference in Istanbul, the Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance condemned Monday's ruling and described it as "a farce."
In a separate development, an Egyptian court on Monday banned the April 6 youth movement that helped engineer the 2011 uprising that led to the ouster of longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
That ruling was seen by activists as part of a government- orchestrated campaign to stifle opposition and dissent. It can be suspended by a higher tribunal.
A Cairo court ruled in a suit filed by a lawyer who demanded the banning of the youth group over allegations it "tarnished the image of the Egyptian state" and conspired against the country's national interests.
Leaders of April 6 - Ahmed Maher and Mohammed Adel - have been jailed for violating a new protest law that requires that any demonstration must have a police permit.