CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's chief prosecutor on Tuesday referred a police officer to trial for the killing of a female protester during a peaceful demonstration in a case that has captured public attention largely because it was filmed and documented in detail.
The death of 32-year old Shaimaa el-Sabbagh, a mother of a young boy, in January on the eve of the 2011 uprising's anniversary caused an intense public outcry. Despite widely circulated footage that showed two masked, black-clad policemen pointing their rifles in el-Sabbagh's direction as gunshots rang out and a voice commanded "fire," authorities initially denied that police had any involvement in her death.
Barely two weeks later, at least 22 soccer fans were crushed to death outside a stadium in Cairo after police fired tear gas to break up the crowd waiting in a narrow corridor to enter. Police accused the fans of attacking the force, and rioting.
On Tuesday, the chief prosecutor general also referred 16 fans to trial, accusing them of belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. The statement said the defendants confessed to receiving money to plot the chaos outside the stadium in order to destabilize the country and cause a recent international donor conference hosted by Egypt to fail. The group, which includes 12 people already in detention, is charged with premeditated murder, sabotage, resisting authorities and possession of explosives.
The prosecutor's office said in a statement that it was acting as an "honest broker" in the highly-emotional cases that have captured public opinion.
The two cases had renewed accusations from rights groups and political activists that Egypt's powerful police force enjoys almost blanket impunity. Amnesty International said authorities in Egypt are covering up excessive use of force by police, taking no action to rein in abuse.
Almost all of the over 100 policemen tried for killing protesters during Egypt's 2011 revolution were acquitted, with judges citing shoddy investigation or lax evidence in cases largely probed by the police themselves.
Authorities have increased the crackdown on dissent following the military ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013, accusing his supporters of being behind the violence that has gripped Egypt, including in the Sinai Peninsula, and against security forces nationwide.
The uproar over el-Sabbagh's death prompted Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to urge an investigation but he hinted that individual mistakes should not undermine public confidence in the police. The interior minister at the time of her death has since been replaced in a Cabinet shuffle.
Chief prosecutor Hisham Barakat said in a statement that the investigation revealed el-Sabbagh died from birdshot fired toward her and other protesters by an officer ordered to disperse the protest. Barakat charged one police officer with involuntary manslaughter, punishable by up to seven years. No trial date has been set.
El-Sabbagh's family lawyer Mohammed Abdel-Aziz said authorities had denied him access to the investigation or the right to attend the interrogations.
In an indication of how the case may proceed, Barakat said the protesters were holding an illegal gathering, without prior permission from the authorities. He referred an undetermined number of protest organizers from el-Sabbagh's political party to trial for violating a draconian 2013 law that bans unauthorized protests.
Abdel-Aziz said he was informed by prosecutors that some 13 members of el-Sabbagh's party, the Popular Alliance, were referred to trial.
In a third case, the chief prosecutor closed the debate over the death of a young activist who disappeared following a 2013 protest in Tahrir square, only to surface days later in a hospital in a coma.
Barakat ruled out previous accounts that Mohammed el-Gindy died from torture while held in a security camp, referring a witness to the account to trial for "spreading false news that endangers public interest," and asserting that the young activist died in a car accident.
The witness had said he saw el-Gindy held in a security camp where he was tortured.
"This is a disaster for all the torture cases. No one would want to come testify now for fear of being referred to trial," Abdel-Aziz, who was also the lawyer for el-Gindy, said.
Abdel-Aziz said the compiled list of referrals by the prosecutor suggests authorities are trying to deflect renewed public anger by passing multiple controversial cases through the system at once.
"It is suggesting authorities are neutral, investigating cases against police and at the same time, get off in the stadium violence and el-Gindy's case," he said.