At least 32 people have been killed, including at least two police officers, during protests in Port Said after a court handed out 21 death sentences in connection with last year’s deadly football riot in the Mediterranean city.
At least 74 people were killed in the riot on February 1, 2012, which began minutes after the final whistle in a game between Port Said-based al-Masry and the Cairo-based al-Ahly.
Al-Masry fans stormed the pitch after their team won, throwing stones, bottles and fireworks at al-Ahly supporters.
Witnesses said that police at the stadium did nothing to stop the violence, which set off days of violent protests in the capital Cairo.
Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid did not give his reasoning when he read out the verdicts for 21 out of the 73 defendants Saturday.
The verdict for the remaining 52 defendants, including nine security officials, is scheduled to be delivered March 9. Some have been charged with murder and others with assisting the attackers.
The verdicts are not final; death sentences must be approved by Egypt’s grand mufti, though that is largely a procedural formality. Defendants can also appeal their sentences, which could take years to carry out.
After the verdicts were handed down, the families of the defendants tried to storm the prison, and police used tear gas to disperse them.
Al Jazeera’s Rawya Rageh, reporting from the city, said that people in plainclothes were firing automatic weapons.
Police have now sealed off Port Said, and the army said it had been deployed to “restore stability”; a curfew has been imposed in the area around the prison.
“It has been decided to deploy some units to work for calm and stability and the protection of public establishments,” said General Ahmed Wasfi, in a statement carried by the official MENA news agency.
‘Justice or blood’
Families of the victims inside the courtroom, meanwhile, reacted with joy and disbelief, cheering and holding pictures of their relatives. “The police are thugs,” yelled relatives before the judge took the bench.
Hassan Mustafa, who had pinned a photo of his dead friend to his chest, said he was pleased with the verdict, but also wanted “justice served for those who planned the killing.”
The verdicts were also met with cheers by al-Ahly supporters who had gathered outside the football club in Cairo.
But the rulings will likely be seen as political – an effort to appease the “Ultras Ahlawy,” die-hard supporters of al-Ahly, who threatened unrest in the capital if the rulings were not to their liking.
Al-Ahly supporters have blocked roads, bridges, and Cairo’s metro system over the past few days. “Justice or blood,” they warned in a statement on Facebook.
“There is nothing to say these people did anything, and we don’t understand what this verdict is based on,” one of the defendants’ lawyers told the Associated Press by telephone. “[This was] a political decision to calm the public.”
Dozens of other defendants, including security officials accused of failing to stop the violence, are expected to receive their verdicts on March 9.
All of this comes just hours after deadly protests that marked the second anniversary of the revolution that toppled longtime Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak.
Ten people were killed on Friday in anti-government protests in Suez and Ismailia, and more than 470 people were wounded; Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian president, deployed the army in Suez to restore order.
On Saturday, police again fired teargas in the city when protesters angry at Friday’s deaths hurled petrol bombs and stormed a police post and other governmental buildings including the agriculture and social solidarity units.
About 18 prisoners in Suez police stations managed to escape during the violence, a security source there said, and
about 30 police weapons were stolen.
Calls for dialogue
Representatives of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition bloc in Egypt, held a press conference on Saturday to condemn the violence.
The group demanded that Morsi appoint a new national unity government and form a committee to overhaul the recently-approved constitution, and threatened to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections unless its demands are met.
On Saturday evening, Egypt’s National Defence Council, headed by President Morsi, condemned street violence and called for national dialogue to resolve political differences, the information minister said after the council met.