MINYA, Egypt Relatives of Egyptians sentenced to death in recent mass trials are urging former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, days before an election he is expected to win, to save their loved ones as proof of his commitment to justice.
In April, a judge in the southern governorate of Minya condemned to death the leader of Islamist organization the Muslim Brotherhood and 682 supporters in connection with the killing of a policeman after the briefest of trials.
The punishment shocked the mother of defendant Yasser Atallah. She was also baffled. She said her son, like other Christians, was deeply distrustful of the Muslim Brotherhood, and backed the army takeover that removed it from power last year.
"He is Christian. We have no relationship with these things," Yasser's mother, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.
Egypt's Western allies and human rights groups who condemned the trials will be watching closely to see if Sisi, who ousted the country's first freely elected president, Mohamed Mursi of the Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice Party, after huge protests against his rule, will promote democracy and the rule of law as promised.
The government says it respects the independence of the judiciary and denies accusations that it influences court decisions.
Though some government officials have complained in private about the mass death sentences, Sisi is expected to say he cannot interfere with the judiciary.
The judge in the mass trials cases, Saeed Youssef, has a reputation for draconian sentencing. In 2013, he sentenced a man to 30 years in jail for stealing clothes from a shop and possessing a knife, judicial sources say.
On the same day Attallah learned his fate, judge Youssef affirmed death sentences on 37 others in a separate case.
The rulings were part of a final judgment on 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters condemned for killing a senior police officer in the town of Matai near Minya.
The violence in Minya came shortly after security forces stormed a pro-Mursi protect camp in Cairo and killed hundreds of people last August.
Almost all police stations were attacked in Minya governorate. Many churches were targeted, too, in response to Christians' backing of Mursi's ouster.
The biggest mass trials in Egypt's modern history reinforced fears that the authorities were again using all levers of power to crush dissent, three years after hopes of greater freedom flourished with the toppling of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years and kept a tight rein on opponents including the Brotherhood.
EVEN LAWYERS AT RISK
Even defending Islamists can be risky.
Lawyer Ahmed Eid was representing more than 65 defendants in the Matai case, when his wife said he suddenly found himself in jail on charges of attacking a police station. He faces a life sentence.
His wife, Maha Sayed, said the father of two had disagreed with the ouster of Mursi, arguing the Islamist leader should have been given longer for the sake of democracy.
"I will not go and vote," she said. "The government and the country did not give me my rights. My rights have been violated. My husband is detained wrongfully."
She said she is now waiting for the election of a president to right that wrong.
"He will, surely, have a role in appealing the judiciary to be just. If my husband had not been jailed, I would have voted for Sisi."
Others, like Ahmed Zaghloul, whose son Hatem, 17, was sentenced to death along with 36 others, have less faith that Sisi will help, even though he says there are procedural irregularities in his son's case. Hatem should have been tried in juvenile court under Egyptian law, but was not.
Sisi says Egyptians have concluded the Brotherhood has no place in society.
"I fear that Sisi could issue decrees against these people or something," said Mursi supporter Zaghloul, a 55 year-old employee of a state electricity company.
Egypt says the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists are a threat to its security, and the security forces have imprisoned thousands of them.
That in turn has fuelled attacks by Islamist militants that have killed hundreds of police and soldiers.
While many hope the election will begin the long process of returning Egypt to stability after years of turmoil, others fear an enduring legacy of division.
Omar Ahmed, the partially sighted father of Abdullah Omar Ahmed, who is on the run after being accused of a link to the killing of a policeman when he was 17, dismisses the election as a farce.
"I will not vote for anybody. I feel none of them will help me, and it is just a play being acted out. I have hope only in God. Whoever wins, the important thing is to declare my son innocent," said Ahmed, a Mursi supporter.
"My convictions are that I should never vote for Sisi because he wronged me."
(Editing by Michael Georgy and Will Waterman)