May 20, 2015 / 11:55 AM / 2 years ago

Egypt appoints outspoken Brotherhood critic justice minister

Ahmed El Zend (R), head of the Judges Club, speaks during an emergency meeting of Egyptian judges at the High Judicial Court, in downtown Cairo, April 24, 2013.Amr Abdallah Dalsh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt appointed a hardline judge and outspoken critic of the Muslim Brotherhood as justice minister on Wednesday in a move decried by a leading opposition figure as a disaster for justice in the world's most populous Arab country.

Ahmed el-Zend, a former appeals court judge, has in contrast to his predecessor been publicly outspoken in his criticism of the Islamist movement removed from power in mid-2013 by the army and banned as a terrorist organization.

Some Egyptian judges are seen by critics as hardliners whose rulings are in line with the toughest crackdown on Islamists in the country's history. The judiciary says it is independent.

Liberal activist Shady el-Ghazaly Harb said the appointment was part of a trend towards empowering opponents of the 2011 uprising that ousted veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"There is a particular approach which describes the January 25 revolution as a conspiracy and a setback, and Zend belongs to this camp," he told Reuters by telephone.

While the courts have been gradually absolving Mubarak-era officials, they have been handing down lengthy sentences to liberal and Islamist activists on charges ranging from protesting to committing acts of violence.

Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the opposition Dostour Party, called Zend's appointment "a disaster" that would raise doubts about the application of justice in Egypt, a strategic ally of Western powers.

In a speech from last year posted on YouTube, Zend denounced the 2011 uprising, saying it allowed the Brotherhood to seize power.

He defended judges from criticism in separate comments to a television show, saying: "We are masters in our homeland. Everyone else are slaves."

Some Egyptians expressed their displeasure with Zend's appointment online, tweeting "No to Zend as justice minister" and sharing videos of his past statements.

Egypt's judiciary has come under fire in the past year from rights groups and foreign governments after handing down lengthy jail terms and mass death sentences against Islamists, including former Islamist president Mohamed Mursi.

Cairo has condemned the outcry as infringement on its sovereignty.

Zend replaces Mahfouz Saber, who resigned last week after he was accused of being snobbish for saying that the son of a garbage collector would be unworthy to serve as a judge.

In the absence of parliament, Sisi has wielded sole legislative authority since taking office last summer. The elected president has promised long-delayed elections would be held before the end of the year.

Sisi has also launched a crackdown on Mursi's Islamist supporters, with hundreds killed and thousands more imprisoned.

The police killed an alleged Brotherhood member in a raid on the outskirts of Cairo, state media reported on Wednesday. The man was accused of killing two policemen last month in the capital.

Hundreds of soldiers and policemen have been killed since mid-2013 by an Islamist insurgency based in the North Sinai.

Egypt's government does not distinguish between more radical groups and the Brotherhood, which denies any link to violence.

Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad; Editing by Michael Georgy and Ralph Boulton

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