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Egypt's Gulag

On Saturday June 21, an Egyptian judge confirmed 183 death sentences for what are called, in the BBC story, supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of them are, no doubt, Brotherhood supporters - until last year's military coup, the Brotherhood was a legal political party and, indeed, the governing party. Since the coup, the Brotherhood has become illegal, its leaders imprisoned. In April, when the initial death sentence was passed on 683 defendants, the brotherhood became the subject of one of the largest mass death sentences in Egypt's recent history. If these death sentences are carried out, they will constitute a major massacre - the largest, perhaps, since the government's massacre of protesters in August 2013, which, according to the Egyptian Ministry of Health, had a death toll of over 600 people.

The Brotherhood is not the government's only target, of course. Civil society activists, the force that started the Arab Spring at Tahrir Square years ago, have been persecuted continuously by governments. One such activist, Alaa Abd El Fattah, was sentenced in absentia to a 15 year sentence.

And then, there is the crime of journalism. Al Jazeera journalists, Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed, were sentenced to 7 years in jail today. What did they do? They "provided a platform" for the Brotherhood. A journalist who did not quote Brotherhood people in a story about Egyptian politics would be irresponsible. But being a responsible journalist in Egypt apparently is punishable with 7 years in prison.

Another Canadian, Khaled al-Qazzaz, was a member of the ousted Brotherhood-led government before the coup last year. In jail since last year, al-Qazzaz's court date has been moved to tomorrow (June 24).

The Western response has been ambivalent. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the sentences of the Al-Jazeera journalists "chilling and draconian". The UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay called them "obscene and a travesty of justice." Canada's Minister, Lynne Yelich, called on Egypt to protect the rights of all individuals, including journalists.

Mixing signals, Kerry also praised Egypt's military government and its recent electoral exercise this past weekend, traveling to the country to talk about Iraq's civil war and to release hundreds of millions in military aid that had been frozen after the coup. "There are issues of concern," he said, "but we know how to work with those." Canada's Foreign Minister John Baird visited Egypt in April, expressing Canada's "willingness to support Egypt during this important transition."

Despite the recent electoral exercise, Egypt is currently ruled by the same military establishment that ruled it for decades. Since the 1970s that establishment has depended on Western support. Kerry, and months before, Baird, have renewed their support at a time of kangaroo courts, persecution of journalists, and mass death sentences.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. Blog: podur.org Twitter: @justinpodur

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