CAIRO (AP) — A prominent Egyptian activist behind the 2011 uprising was sentenced to five years in prison on Monday over an unauthorized but peaceful protest, signaling authorities' determination to stifle dissent a day after President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi vowed to release "wrongly jailed youths."
The verdict in the retrial of well-known activist Alaa Abdel-Fattah reduced an earlier 15-year prison sentence for organizing and taking part in an unauthorized protest and allegedly assaulting a police officer. Monday's ruling by judge Hassan Farid was condemned by defense lawyers and supporters, who said Abdel-Fattah should have been set free.
Earlier in the same court, a lecture hall in a police academy in a Cairo suburb, the same judge postponed until March 8 hearings in the retrial of two Al-Jazeera English journalists who face terror-related charges in a case widely criticized by human rights organizations and media groups.
His decision followed a brief hearing for acting bureau chief Mohamed Fahmy and producer Baher Mohammed. They were freed this month to await trial, though they've had to check in with police daily.
The two, arrested in December 2013, face charges of being part of a terrorist group and airing falsified footage intended to damage Egyptian national security. Satellite news network Al-Jazeera is based in Qatar, which was the main backer of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. A third Al-Jazeera journalist convicted in the same case, Australian Peter Greste, was deported Feb. 1 after more than a year in prison.
Fahmy, who has Canadian citizenship, gave up his Egyptian nationality in hopes of being similarly deported. It is not clear why authorities have not allowed him to leave the country.
"Canada continues to call for the immediate and full release of Mohamed Fahmy. The prospect of Mr. Fahmy continuing to stand retrial is unacceptable, and Canada advocates for the same treatment of Mr. Fahmy as other foreign nationals have received," Canadian Minister of State for Consular Affairs Lynne Yelich said Monday.
The activist Abdel-Fattah's retrial began in October and involved 25 defendants, five of whom are fugitives. One other defendant, Ahmed Adel-Rahman, received a five-year prison sentence, while the rest got three years.
Abdel-Rahman happened to be passing through the central Cairo area where the Nov. 26, 2013 protest was held, according to defense lawyers and witnesses. He was arrested when he tried to stop plainclothes policemen from roughing up several female protesters, they said.
Farid, the judge, also ruled that all the defendants be placed under police surveillance for a period similar to their prison terms after their release, requiring them to report daily to the police.
The courtroom erupted after the verdict, with relatives and friends in the gallery shouting: "Down with oppression!" One man collapsed as Abdel-Fattah's family and friends wept and screamed: "Down with military rule!" The crowd then applauded the defendants, before police ultimately ordered everyone to clear the courtroom.
About 100 relatives, friends and activists, some tearful and angry, waited outside the gate of the police academy where the trial was held, hoping for a glimpse of their loved ones in the police truck taking them back to prison.
Defense lawyer Mohammed Abdel-Aziz decried the verdict as "harsh and oppressive."
The court "didn't take into consideration any of the evidence that showed the defendants' innocence," he said.
Another rights lawyer, Taher Abou el-Nasr, said: "Regrettably, the verdict was expected. We no longer expect acquittals."
Lawyers said they will appeal the ruling to Egypt's Court of Cassation, the country's highest appeals court.
In a brief address before he delivered the verdict, Judge Farid insisted the ruling was "free of any interference or caprices." Egyptian officials insist the judiciary is independent and does not rule based on political considerations.
An outspoken blogger, Abdel-Fattah has been in and out of prison in the years since the 2011 ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. A software engineer by profession, he campaigned for democracy and against the policies of the military council that ruled Egypt for nearly 17 months following Mubarak's ouster.
He also opposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, whom the military overthrew in 2013, and is critical of his successor, el-Sissi.
The charges against him stem from a disputed law prohibiting protests without government permission, a measure adopted a few months after Morsi's July 2013 overthrow.
"I know of no other country in the world that jails young people for three or five years for taking part in peaceful protests," said Khaled Dawoud, spokesman for the Dostour party, of which two members were sentenced to three years in prison on Monday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States was "deeply troubled by the new harsh sentences."
"These sentences and others under the (demonstrations) law have had a chilling effect on key freedoms of expression and assembly," she told reporters in Washington. She called on Egypt's leaders to amend the law.
Abdel-Fattah was accused of inciting an "unauthorized" demonstration on Nov. 26, 2013. That demonstration was called to protest a clause allowing military trials for civilians in the draft of a new constitution, which was later adopted in a referendum.
Mona Seif, Abdel-Fattah's sister and one of the organizers of the protest, said he attended the demonstration but denied he had organized it, saying it was called for by a group that campaigns against military trials for civilians.
Police violently dispersed the protest and about a dozen women, including Seif, were detained by police and dropped off in the middle of the desert outside of Cairo later that night.
Monday's ruling comes a day after el-Sissi promised to release youths wrongly arrested. Iconic figures like Abdel-Fattah will likely remain in detention, but authorities may release youths rounded up at demonstrations but not yet charged. Rights groups say there are more than 20,000 people behind bars now in Egypt, mostly Islamists.
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.