A Cairo court has sentenced three leading activists to three years in prison for organising an illegal protest, the latest move in a widening crackdown on critics of the interim government.
Two of the three activists, Ahmed Maher and Mohamed Adel, are leading members of the April 6 movement. The third is Ahmed Douma, a longtime activist.
They have been targets for prosecution before: Douma was fined for insulting deposed President Mohamed Morsi earlier this year, and Maher was briefly detained in May on incitement charges.
The court on Sunday also handed down fines of 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($7,200). A lawyer for the defendants said they would appeal the verdict.
This was the first criminal trial under a restrictive law issued last month that requires protesters to seek approval from the interior ministry. The three-year jail sentence is the maximum allowed under the law.
“I’m surprised. I did not expect they would come back with a verdict worse than ever before, that they would take revenge on the protesters from the revolution,” said Amal Sharaf, a co-founder of April 6.
“They [the government] will pay a lot for this,” she added.
will pay a lot for this”]
The defendants were charged with organising a protest last month outside Abdeen Court in downtown Cairo. Maher was at the court to turn himself in on charges connected with another illegal protest, earlier in November, outside the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament.
Maher has denied any role in the earlier demonstration, which was organised by a lobbying group to protest an article in the draft constitution allowing military trials for civilians.
The defendants were also charged with obstructing traffic, “thuggery,” and damaging private property. Security forces and protesters briefly scuffled with batons and plastic furniture from a nearby cafe. Officers said the defendants attacked them first. April 6 has denied this, and called the charges “political.”
In a particularly surreal twist, prosecutors presented as evidence the fact that Douma asked protesters to stop the rally once it turned violent – proof, they said, that he helped organise the demonstration.
He was arrested at his home several days after Maher turned himself in. Adel remained free until early Thursday morning, when he was detained during a raid on a local human rights organisation.
Thousands of people have been arrested since the military ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July, most of them supporters of the president and his Muslim Brotherhood. But the crackdown has recently widened to include liberal and secular activists.
Groups like April 6 have been portrayed in state and private media as a “fifth column,” working to undermine the country’s stability. So while Sunday’s verdict was quickly condemned by activists, it is unlikely to meet much criticism from the general population.
Sharaf said April 6 would respond to the conviction for organising an illegal protest with, unsurprisingly, another protest.