CAIRO (Reuters) - Hossam Shabib says he has always been a respectable Egyptian doctor who served his community and stayed out of trouble. Now he is hiding abroad, convicted of taking part in the killing of a police officer.
On Monday, an Egyptian court sentenced Shabib and 528 other alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for murder and other offences, signaling a sharp escalation in a crackdown on Islamists.
Only 123 of the defendants were in court on Monday. The rest were either released, out on bail or in hiding.
Shabib says he is innocent, one of thousands of people human rights groups say have been unfairly rounded up since army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi toppled Islamist president Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood last July.
The military-backed government has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group responsible for shootings and bombings. The Brotherhood denies the allegations.
“I am not a member of the Brotherhood, but I support its Freedom and Justice Party (FJP). I am not a member of the Brotherhood, and the authorities know that,” said Shabib.
The FJP has effectively been banned by the government.
Shabib said he was wrongly accused of killing police Colonel Mustafa al-Attar in the violence that erupted in the southern province of Minya after security forces crushed a pro-Mursi protest camp in Cairo last August.
A senior Interior Ministry official, who asked not to be named, said the police had video and television footage that proved the 529 had taken part in violence.
Government spokesman Hani Salah declined to comment on individual cases, but he said “Egypt confirms the need to protect human rights” and the government “is committed to ensuring freedoms”.
Seventy people, 17 of them policemen, were killed in Minya, which resembled a war zone on the day in question. Police stations, churches and other targets were hit.
Shabib said he had nothing to do with the bloodshed.
“I was accused of breaking the curfew. I was detained for 50 days. Then I was suddenly connected to the death of Colonel Mustafa al-Attar,” said Shabib, speaking to Reuters by telephone from a country he declined to name due to security fears.
Shabib said he had received a call from an agitated hospital worker on the day of the killing. He complained there were no doctors at the hospital as bodies started arriving.
Shabib said he rushed to work and spent all day there.
“I went downstairs to get a sack of blood, and an intelligence agent named Mohamed Rushdi asked me to ‘come inside (the operating room) and help us; people are killing a police officer’. We tried to stop it. This guy is a witness that I was in hospital,” said Shabib, referring to Attar.
“The people attacked us, too. We had to step away.”
Detentions have been rising since Shabib was arrested on August 28, taking in suspected militants, secular activists and some academics.
Human Rights Watch said it was deeply concerned by the more than 16,000 detentions in recent months, adding it was not unusual for charges not connected to initial causes of detention to be added on.
“We are also seeing more cases of abuses committed during detentions,” said Human Rights Watch.
Shabib, a 45-year-old father of four, said he missed his family and country but would not return anytime soon.
“This is not the Egypt we know. It’s not the country where I once felt safe. I don’t want to experience prison again,” he said.
He recalled how authorities treated him while he was being moved from between prisons; blindfolded, beaten with rifle butts, slapped, placed in solitary confinement.
“I was never electrocuted, but I could hear men screaming while they were being electrocuted,” said Shabib, who said the abuses multiplied after he and other prisoners complained.
Government spokesman Salah said Egypt does not tolerate torture in its prisons.
“The Ministry of the Interior allows missions of the boards of Human Rights to visit prisons, and most of the reports that came out of these boards point to the absence of torture in prisons,” he told Reuters.
Three weeks before the mass death sentences were handed down on only the second day of the trial, Shabib fled Egypt, expecting what he called a political sentence.
Egyptian officials say the judiciary is independent.
The trial judge declined to comment.
One day after Shabib’s death sentence, the same Minya court and judge began trying the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and 682 others on similar charges. They too could face the death penalty.
Shabib said he had Islamist leanings from an early age but was not politically active, even when hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protested in the streets in 2011 and toppled Hosni Mubarak.
“I have never been to a protest in my life,” said Shabib.
Editing by Will Waterman