CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court jailed 23 young activists for three years on Sunday for violating a law banning protests without a permit, judicial sources said, in a case rights group say reflects an increasingly repressive climate in the country.
The activists were arrested in June while demonstrating against the law. Passed last year after the army toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, the law tightly restricts protests -- the vehicle Egyptians used to topple autocrat President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and to express discontent with Mursi in 2013.
Four days after their arrest, the public prosecutor swiftly ordered the defendants to trial. In addition to the charge of violating the protest law, the defendants were convicted of blocking off a road during the demonstration, damaging public property and using violence “with the aim of terrorizing citizens”.
Rights groups have called the charges baseless. Amnesty International deemed it another example of a series of “show-trials” based on scant evidence. The group said in a September statement that such trials appear intended to warn citizens against defying government policies.
A security crackdown launched after army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood initially targeted Islamists demanding the reinstatement of Mursi.
Last year, in the months after security forces killed hundreds of Islamist demonstrators at two Cairo protest camps and arrested thousands more, authorities began arresting liberal and secular activists.
Three Al Jazeera journalists were jailed for seven years in June for helping a “terrorist organization” in a case that was condemned by Western governments that provide military and political assistance to Cairo.
Sisi was elected president in May and has pledged to revive the economy and combat an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai. He has made less specific pledges about upholding the rights and freedoms that led many Egyptians to take the streets in the 2011 revolt to demand.
Though some activists, including Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading figure in the revolt that toppled Mubarak, have been released on bail, others remain behind bars, either awaiting trial or serving sentences.
Fattah’s sister Sanaa, a 20-year-old university student, was among those sentenced on Sunday. Outside the courtroom before the verdict was read, Fattah said rulings against young activists like his sister were a deliberate attempt to imprison and silence them.
One of the other defendants, Yara Sallam, a 28-year-old lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, was not participating in the demonstration according to eyewitnesses, but was rounded up nearby and put on trial.
The court also fined those convicted 10,000 Egyptian pounds($1,400) each. After they have served their sentences, they will be kept under police surveillance for three years. The ruling can be appealed.
“The harsh verdict against...the protesters is one of the disastrous results of the unjust protest law,” tweeted Khaled Dawoud, a well-known member of a liberal party that opposed Mursi and the Brotherhood’s rule. Dawoud initially backed Sisi’s ouster of Mursi but has since become critical of policies of the Sisi government.
(1 US dollar = 7.1500 Egyptian pound)
Additional reporting by Omar Fahmy; Editing by Rosalind Russell