CAIRO (AP) — The Egyptian judge who oversaw mass death sentence cases against Islamist supporters of the country's ousted president, drawing strong international criticism, has been removed from his criminal court, officials and the judge himself told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The removal of Judge Said Youssef, taken by a top appeals court, signals a possible shift in Egypt after an extensive crackdown on backers of toppled President Mohammed Morsi and an attempt by judges to begin to repair the damage done by judge's heavy handed rulings.
Youssef, who led the two high-profile death penalty cases in southern city of Minya, told the AP he was notified Sunday that he was removed from the "criminal judiciary" to the "civilian judiciary." His final day in criminal court was Tuesday.
"I was notified while I was looking into cases," Youssef said. He added that his court, known as the "terrorism court" and assigned to look into cases linked to violence and acts of terror, had been "dismantled." He declined to discuss why he was removed.
Other officials, including a top judicial official, corroborated Youssef's account.
Youssef's court, which started hearing cases in March, is the only "terrorism" court that will be dismantled, court officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
The move looks like a demotion for Youssef. According to Egypt's el-Shorouk daily newspaper, removal from the court is an exceptional measure which only takes place in two cases: either the judge has been associated to an act that is damaging to his reputation or that he was investigated by a special committee which ruled that he was no longer capable of overseeing criminal court cases.
Normally, a judge who has spent 15 years in criminal judiciary remains in his post until retirement, the paper said.
Said was condemned when he sentenced to death more than 1,200 people in two mass trials. The number of death sentences, initially the most in recent memory anywhere in the world, was later reduced to more than 200. Most of the defendants were charged with murder, attempted murder, joining an outlawed group aiming at toppling the regime and stealing government weapons in connection with the attack last August in the town of Matay and el-Adawa, south of Cairo. Police officers were killed in the attacks.
The cases are rooted in the violent attacks on police stations and killing of police officers in August 2013 in revenge for security forces raiding two Islamists' sit-ins in Cairo that left hundreds dead and sparked days of unrest. Protesters were demanding the reinstatement of Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood group.
The military led the ouster of Morsi in July after mass demonstrations against him and his supporters staged near-daily demonstrations demanding his reinstatement. Some 22,000 people have been arrested since Morsi's ouster, including most of the Brotherhood's top leaders as well as large numbers of others swept up by police during pro-Morsi protests.
Gamal Abdel-Maguid, a lawyer who represented a number of defendants, nicknamed the judge "Said the butcher."
"The case caused an international earthquake and it was expected that judges would get rid of him after all damage he caused," Abdel-Maguid said.
In the two court cases, Youssef issued his stunning verdicts in their second hearings and in the absence of lawyers who responded by boycotting the next sessions. Youssef's verdicts were justified as "deterrent" to prevent similar riots which left churches and police stations torched and threatened lives of many.
Many of those who received death sentence were tried in absentia, meaning they'll be given automatic retrials once captured. Abdel-Maguid said a large number of defendants recently surrendered to have a retrial. Others have two chances to appeal the verdict.
Youssef's sentences in the two cases shocked the world. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the verdicts were likely to "undermine prospects for long-term stability." Amnesty International said it feared Egypt's courts were "becoming just another part of the authorities' repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale." Youssef himself said that he received death threats and authorities assigned security guards to escort him.
The U.S. State Department also said at the time his ruling "defies logic" that so many people could get a fair trial in just two hearings. That renewed calls for the U.S. to suspend some of the $1.5 billion in military and economic aid it gives Egypt each year.
Some hope Youssef's court being dismantled means defendants in Egypt may begin to again face "normal" judges, as opposed to special courts that mete out swift, harsh rulings.
"At the end of the day, the judges themselves believed this was not a reasonable verdict and then they decided to move this judge to a soft-core field." prominent rights lawyer Negad el-Borai said.
Thabet reported from Assiut, Egypt. Associated Press writer Merrit Kennedy contributed to this report.