By Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian appeals court on Monday upheld the jailing of three leading figures of the 2011 pro-democracy uprising, tightening a crackdown on secular activists opposed to the army-backed government.
Critics see their case as an attempt to stifle the kind of street activism common since the uprising that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak three years ago as Egypt prepares for presidential elections next month.
A court handed out three-year sentences to the three liberal activists, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, last December for protesting without permission and assaulting the police.
The verdict was the first under a new law that requires police permission for demonstrations. The case stemmed from protests called in defiance of the law. The European Union and the United States had urged Egypt to reconsider the verdict.
The three men appeared in court on Monday inside a metal cage wearing blue prison suits and chanting: "Down down with the army rule, our country will always be free."
They have one final chance to appeal before a higher court but analysts see little hope of the verdict to be overturned.
"DOWN WITH RULE OF INJUSTICE!"
"I was not expecting at all this sentence. I was certainly expecting it to be overturned. That is very bad news," said another liberal activist, Khaled Dawoud.
"That will definitely send a very negative signal to all the young people who supported the January (2011) revolution."
Human rights activist Gamal Eid tweeted "Down down with the rule of injustice" in reaction to the verdict.
Already pressing a crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood movement of deposed president Mohamed Mursi, the army-led authorities have arrested a number of secular activists in recent months for breaches of the new protest law.
Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who toppled Mursi last July following mass protests against his rule, is expected to easily win next month's presidential election.
Sisi's supporters see him as a decisive figure who can bring stability. Islamist and secular opponents say he has helped turn Egypt back into a police state.
Security forces have killed hundreds of Brotherhood members and arrested thousands of others. Mursi and many other top leaders are on trial.
Western powers have called for democracy and an end to human rights abuses in Egypt but there are no signs they intend to exert the kind of pressure that might force change.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton is expected to arrive in Cairo on Wednesday for talks with Egyptian officials, the state news agency said.
(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin, Writing by Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Michael Georgy and Gareth Jones)