CAIRO (AP) — Twice this month, Egypt's highest appeals court has struck down harsh sentences against Mohammed Morsi, the elected Islamist president overthrown by the military in 2013, giving some hope to thousands of his supporters, who were jailed or sentenced to death by hasty verdicts following mass trials.
Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood is outlawed as a terrorist group, and the court has upheld heavy sentences against its members. But its quashing of some of the faultiest rulings has led lawyers to see the appeals court as a last refuge for justice.
President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and other top officials have long insisted that Egypt's judiciary is independent of the government and does not engage in show trials.
But a series of swift, mass verdicts issued in the tumultuous months after Morsi's ouster, as security forces were cracking down on his supporters and violently dispersing protests, raised the possibility that Egypt might execute the Brotherhood's leadership.
Many judges on the lower courts openly expressed their disdain for the Islamists and their desire to impose order after the turmoil that followed the 2011 uprising. Defense lawyers say they often relied on faulty police reports citing anonymous security sources.
Among the most notorious rulings were those by a court in the southern city of Minya, which sentenced more than 1,000 alleged Morsi supporters to death in two mass trials that each lasted only a few days. Some of those death sentences were later rescinded by a religious authority, and many of the defendants appealed the rulings and were granted retrials. None were executed.
Scores of other cases were reversed by the Court of Cassation, whose members are appointed by the Supreme Judicial Council, a panel of the country's most experienced and well-respected judges.
Rights lawyers see it as a refuge for those who have been tried, convicted and condemned by the lower courts, as well as public opinion.
"The judges of the Court of Cassation have white hands. They are the most honest and the most credible and have no political biases," said Khaled el-Masry, a lawyer who has represented scores of Islamists. "We hope their independence remains untouched."
The court struck down a life sentence against the 65-year-old Morsi on Tuesday and ordered a retrial. In that case, he had been convicted in May of 2015 of conspiring with foreign militant groups, including the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
The court also threw out life sentences against 16 other jailed Brotherhood figures, including the group's top leader, Mohammed Badie, and canceled death sentences against 16 others, most of whom had been tried in absentia. No date was set for a retrial.
"The court cases were in tatters," said Mohammed Tosson, one of Morsi's lawyers. "Now the (Court of) Cassation is giving its word and doing its job."
The ruling came nearly a week after the same court canceled a death sentence against Morsi for charges linked to a prison break during the 2011 uprising that ended autocrat Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule.
"The government and the judicial authorities know from day one that these court rulings will be struck down at the Court of Cassation," said defense lawyer Ezzat Ghoneim. "The rulings are no surprise."
Gamal Eid, a prominent human rights lawyer and the founder of the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information, said the rulings "validate our opinion that verdicts have been motivated by political retaliation and not legal evidence."
The crackdown is still underway, lower courts are still issuing harsh verdicts, and Morsi's legal woes are far from over. The Court of Cassation upheld a 20-year sentence on charges linked to the killing of protesters in December 2012, and has yet to rule on another life sentence against Morsi connected to espionage charges.
Morsi remains in solitary confinement, and has not received visits from family or lawyers since November 2013, his son, Osama, told The Associated Press. During court appearances, he stands in a soundproof glass cage.
The three-year crackdown has decimated his Islamist movement, which triumphed in a series of free elections following the Arab Spring but has now been driven underground. Nearly all the Brotherhood's senior leaders are in jail or living abroad. Thousands of rank and file members are imprisoned, while others have left the Brotherhood to join more radical outfits, like the Islamic State group.
The rolling back of harsh verdicts could lay the groundwork for reconciliation, but at the moment there's no evidence the government or the Brotherhood are interested.
In an interview published Saturday by the London-based news portal Arabi 21, Ibrahim Moneir, a senior Brotherhood leader, called for "the wise people" to devise a way of bringing the rival parties together. But he retracted those remarks days later in an interview with a Brotherhood-linked outlet, saying "we haven't asked for reconciliation."
Associated Press writer Mariam Fam contributed.