Egyptian authorities have released 21 women and girls convicted for staging a street protest after an appeal court reduced their harsh penalties, including prison terms of 11 years, to suspended sentences.
The initial verdict handed down late last month caused an international and domestic outcry.
“This is God-given,” Ola Alaa, an 18-year-old medical student who was initially sentenced to 11 years, told the Associated Press news agency. “I think (the authorities) wanted to calm things down,” she said from her home in the coastal city of Alexandria on Saturday.
Ola’s father tells Al Jazeera of his paternal pride
“I am very proud of her,” Ola’s father told Al Jazeera.
The 21 defendants, who included seven teenagers, were held in custody for over a month.
The 14 women, mostly around the age of 20, were originally sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted in connection to an October 31 protest in support of ousted president Mohamed Morsi.
The minors were ordered held until they turned 18, when their cases would have been re-evaluated. The group faced charges including “thuggery” and the use of weapons, the latter for allegedly having thrown rocks.
Security forces have tried to crush the Muslim Brotherhood since the army ousted Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, on July 3.
His supporters have staged frequent protests calling for his reinstatement.
The army-backed authorities accuse the Brotherhood of violence and terrorism. It denies the charges.
Hundreds of Morsi supporters have been killed and thousands arrested, while Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders are on trial for inciting violence.
‘No independent judiciary’
Gamal Eid, a human rights activist, said the sentences against the female protesters had been politically motivated.
“There is no independent judiciary in Egypt,” he told the Reuters news agency. “They [the judges] were looking at the girls’ background instead of their actions. Now they have tried to fix the first decision and it makes more sense.”
In a separate case, a court acquitted 155 Morsi supporters of committing violent acts and damaging property in protests on Egypt’s October 6 national holiday, the state news agency reported.
Protests are a sensitive issue in the country of 85 million people where people power has helped topple two presidents in less than three years.
Longtime president Hosni Mubarak was ousted after a popular uprising in 2011, while the army removed Morsi following mass protests against his one-year rule.
The army-backed interim government passed a law last month tightly restricting protests by requiring police permission for any public gathering of more than 10 people.
The military’s roadmap for political transition could lead Egypt to presidential and parliamentary elections next year.