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15 May 2014updated 27 Sep 2015 5:31am

Saeed Youssef, the Butcher of Minya

In just four weeks the Egyptian judge has sentenced to death 720 alleged supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood in two mass verdicts.

By Bel Trew

Saeed Youssef, nicknamed “the Butcher”, has broken world records: in just four weeks this judge has sent 720 people to their deaths in two separate mass verdicts passed in his courtroom in Minya, Upper Egypt. Most recently, on 28 April, he sentenced 683 to death for allegedly killing a policeman in rioting after the July 2013 overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi.

During the eight-minute court sessions he refused to view evidence or listen to witnesses. Instead, bewildered defence lawyers told me, he ordered the security forces to point their guns at the legal team. Some were even forbidden entry to the hearings. “I have yet to make it into the courtroom,” one of the defendants’ lawyers, Ali Mabrouk told me.

More than 16,000 people have been arrested since the  July coup and many of those have been put to trial. Every week hundreds are sentenced, but Youssef is by far the harshest judge.

“The Butcher” gained notoriety when he led Beni Suef Criminal Court, a hundred kilometres south of Cairo, flanked by two assistant judges dubbed “Cut Throat” and “Mr X”. From there in 2013, he acquitted the Beni Suef police chief and ten of his officers of killing protesters during the 2011 uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak. There was only one hearing, and neither the prosecution nor the defence team was allowed to present its case, as Mohamed El-Zanaty, a lawyer who has worked in Youssef’s courtrooms, told me. The judge simply wanted the policemen freed.

“For two years, he has been giving the most extreme verdicts we have ever heard of,” El-Zanaty said. He described how Youssef once sentenced a man to 40 years in jail for possessing a gun.

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Thanks to this reputation for harsh sentencing, Youssef was promoted to become one of the nine regional “judicial terrorist district” courts, responsible for dealing with attacks on the state.

No one knows if Egypt’s military-installed authorities will carry out the death sentences: in the past three years only one person has been executed in the country. Nevertheless, the latest signs are not promising. In response to international outcry at the death verdicts, Justice Minister Neir Osman stood by the judge and claimed the Egyptian state was being “attacked by people from inside and outside”.

Meanwhile, the cabinet is drafting counterterrorism legislation that may soon help the Butcher in his quest to hang hundreds.

The package of laws will lead to many more death penalty verdicts because its definition of terrorism is so broad that it includes actions which obstruct the work of public officials or institutions, that harm national unity, or that are perceived as “intimidation”, says Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa office. Both Islamist and secular protest groups are fearful.

The politicisation of Egypt’s judiciary is alarming. No one knows if such judges are receiving orders directly from the state or acting on their own. They have clearly positioned themselves on the front line of the government’s mission to stamp out dissent. Yet judges are the guardians of democracy: on 26-27 May they will man polling stations and guard the ballot boxes for the presidential election, a vote that the ex-army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led last year’s coup, is expected to win.