CAIRO (AP) — Three of Egypt's most prominent youth activists were beaten in the courthouse by their guards before a hearing Monday in the appeal of their prison sentence, their lawyer said.
Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, leading figures in Egypt's 2011 uprising, have been imprisoned since being sentenced in December to three years. They were the first activists tried under a controversial protest law enacted late last year, as authorities sought to quell widespread demonstrations.
The law imposes strict restrictions on any public gathering, and imposes hefty fines and heavy sentences for violators. The military-backed government defended it as a measure needed to restore law and order.
The targeting of high-profile secular activists reverberated among the protest movement, but thousands of other protesters have been detained on similar charges, raising charges that authorities are widening their dragnet to include any form of dissent.
The majority of detainees are supporters of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who was ousted by the military in July, following mass protests against him.
Rights activists say that abuse is common in detention, often taken out on those who challenge their guards.
The three activists have complained of mistreatment before, saying they were denied warm clothes in prison and suffered other forms of abuse.
At the start of Monday's session, lawyer Mahmoud Belal said the three entered the courtroom shouting. The defendants said their guards beat them because they complained that their handcuffs were too tight, and that they should be taken off in the courtroom.
Belal said the defense team threatened to withdraw until the judge examined their injuries and registered their complaint. Although the judge did so, he still proceeded with the case and didn't order an investigation into the incident or a change of guards, the lawyer said.
"He didn't do anything, except promise he would refer the incident to investigation. In the end, he didn't, said Belal. "He just wanted us to proceed."
He said Douma showed signs of having been beaten in the stomach and neck and Adel in the knee.
Maj. Gen. Abu Bakr Abdel-Karim, a Ministry of Interior official on its human rights committee, told the private CBC station that there was report of such an incident, but that putting handcuffs on defendants is a legal measure intended to prevent defendants attacking police officers.
A verdict on the appeal is expected April 7.
Separately, prosecutors said they referred four suspects with links to al-Qaida to trial on charges of conspiring with the militant group to carry out attacks in Egypt. They said the suspects planned attacks against military and security installations and the U.S. and French embassies.
In a statement, the chief prosecutor said three of the suspects are Egyptians and a fourth, on the run, is an ethnic Kurd who met one of the Egyptian suspects on the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan and maintained contact with him. They did not give the Kurd's nationality.
This is the first referral of suspected militants with alleged links to al-Qaida to trial in Egypt, where attacks against police and military have increased following the ouster of Morsi. Many are in the restive Sinai peninsula but have recently moved closer to the capital.
The statement said one of the defendants, Amr Aqida, confessed he joined al-Qaida in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2011, where he received training and participated in attacks, before fleeing to Yemen. Another defendant Mohammed Hemeida had joined militant groups in Algeria, according to the statement, before he was handed over to Egypt. He allegedly escaped from prisons during the turmoil that hit Egypt during the 2011 uprising.
The Egyptians are accused of forming a cell that plotted attacks against the U.S. and French Embassies and gathered information about military installations in Egypt. The Kurd was an al-Qaida leader who kept in contact with the cell from abroad, the statement said.
The statement said maps, cash, mobile phones as well as explosives were seized with the suspects.
No date for the trial has been set.
Lawyers for the defendants could not immediately be identified. Rights groups say confessions are often obtained under duress.