By Michael Georgy
CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court sentenced leading activist Alaa Abdel Fattah to 15 years in jail on Wednesday for violating a protest law and on other charges, his lawyer said, a move that outraged human rights groups.
Abdel Fattah, 33, became a symbol of the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak through his leading role in the protests and on social media. Twenty four other people were also sentenced to 15 years in jail on similar charges.
The ruling came three days after former army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was inaugurated as president, nearly a year after he toppled the country's first freely elected leader, Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since Mursi's fall, security forces have killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters. Rights groups say more than 16,000 people have also been arrested.
They have also rounded up secular activists like Abdel Fattah, raising concerns the authorities are turning the clock back to the Mubarak era when any form of dissent was risky.
The protest law passed last year heightened fears about the future of political freedoms in Egypt. The law, which rights groups say is deeply repressive, gives the Interior Ministry the right to ban any meeting of more than 10 people in a public place.
Abdel Fattah was ordered arrested over accusations he called protests against provisions in a new constitution that allow civilians to be tried in military courts.
He had been out of jail on bail, but was detained following the judge's ruling, according to security sources.
His sister Mona Seif wrote on her Facebook page that authorities had stopped the defendants attending the trial, which in this case under Egyptian law meant that they be given the maximum possible sentence and retried if they surrendered themselves.
His father, lawyer Ahmed Seif el-Islam, who was also the head of his legal team, called the proceedings a "trap" to arrest his son and other defendants and to force a re-trial with them in prison instead of free.
In another courtroom, a judge renewed the detention of Al Jazeera journalist Abdullah Al-Shamy, who was arrested when security forces broke up a pro-Mursi sit-in in Cairo, for another 45 days, judicial sources said.
Shamy has been in jail since last August but no formal charges have been brought against him. Video posted recently on social media has shown him in a frail state since he began a hunger strike several months ago.
U.S. citizen Mohamed Soltan, the son of a Brotherhood leader who has also been on hunger strike, was transferred on Tuesday night from Tora prison to the intensive care unit of a central Cairo hospital after he had difficulty breathing, security and medical sources said.
Western allies have voiced concerns about human rights abuses in Egypt but have not taken strong measures in protest.
"In today’s verdict (on Abdel Fattah and others), the judiciary has shown that it regards the assembly law as a carte blanche to criminalize peaceful dissent," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "It's a further message that protest is not welcome in the new Egypt."
Activist Asmaa Mahfouz expressed alarm over Wednesday's prison sentences.
"Fifteen years for protesting?????? What about those who killed? Those who steal the money of the poor? Those who raped girls in the square?," she asked on Twitter.
"There will never be a state as long as this goes on."
Sisi ordered the interior minister to fight sexual harassment following the arrest of seven men for attacking women near Cairo's Tahrir Square during his inauguration celebrations, his office said on Tuesday.
Many Egyptians, exhausted by three years of street violence and upheaval, see Sisi as a strong figure who can restore stability and seem less concerned about alleged abuses.
"Instead of addressing the urgent need for reform, Egyptian authorities have spent the last year engaging in repression on a scale unprecedented in Egypt's modern history," said Hassiba Hadj-Sahraoui, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
"Now that President al-Sisi has formally taken the reins of power, he should put an end to these rampant abuses."
(Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin, Mahmoud Mourad, Maggie Fick and Asma Alsharif; Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Sonya Hepinstall)