An Egyptian court has endorsed a three-year prison sentence handed to three prominent activists, rejecting their appeal against charges of breaching a controversial anti-protests law.
The verdict targets Ahmed Maher, Mohamed Adel and Ahmed Douma, co-founders of the April 6 opposition movement which played a large role in the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak.
Monday's ruling amplifies the spectre of deeper rifts between the young opposition and the army-backed government, with dozens of activists calling for an open sit-in(Arabic) outside the presidential palace in the Cairo suburb Heliopolis, until the law was retracted and the prisoners were released.
Pictures, allegedly taken at the premises and circulating on Twitter, showed small crowds of women gathering in front of the palace.
The trio's arrest took place in December, shortly after the issuance of a law banning unauthorised protests, which the government said it needed to restore stability to a country shaken by years of turmoil.
Both liberal and Islamist opposition, however, accused the government of reinstating the pre-2011 police state and using the law as a pretext to carry out arbitrary arrests and crackdown on protests.
One of the defence lawyers, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, said he planned to challenge the ruling, but acknowledged that the process could take months, the Associated Press news agency reported.
"If we can't overturn the verdict, we will take the case to the African Court on Human and People's rights," he said.
Presidential hopeful Hamdeen Sabbahi called through his Twitter account on interim President Adli Mansour to "issue an immediate amnesty for the revolution's youth".
Sabbahi added that it is "not acceptable" that Egypt's "revolutionary youth be jailed because of an unjust law, while those who are corrupt and killed its youth are free due to incompetent laws".
Human Rights' Watch described Monday's verdict as "one more nail in the coffin for Egypt’s tevolution,” citing its executive director Sarah Leah Whitson.
“The appeals court has failed to undo the worst excesses of the government’s campaign to crush dissent," she said in a statement.
Echoing HRW's opinion, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's deputy Middle East and North Africa director, demanded the activists' immediate release.
"The three men are prisoners of conscience, who should never have been put on trial. They must be released immediately and unconditionally, with their convictions quashed," she said in a statement.
April 6 movement, which celebrated its sixth anniversary on Sunday, was at the forefront of the 18-day uprising against Mubarak, but later joined the opposition against the generals who took over the reins of power for nearly 17 months after his ousting.
April 6 initially supported Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, but soon became disillusioned with the Islamist leader's perceived attempt at concentrating powers with his Brotherhood.
The movement supported Morsi's removal by the military last July, after days of protests by millions of Egyptians against his rule. But again, the group shifted its stance to denounce what it describes as the curtailment of freedoms and the heavy handedness of the police under the current military-backed government.
The predominantly pro-military local media has cast the April 6 movement as a treasonous organisation with foreign links.
Monday's development comes as Egypt is heading towards a crucial presidential election next month in which the front-runner is former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the ouster of Morsi.