An Egyptian court handed down prison sentences to three of the country's most prominent youth activists yesterday in the first use of a controversial new protest law, a harsh warning to the secular groups that supported the military's ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi but have since grown critical of the army-backed government that replaced him.
Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, founders of the April 6 movement, each received three years in prison on charges of holding an illegal rally and assaulting police. According to their lawyers, prosecutors said they had thrown rocks at police, but their defence disputed that they had done the throwing.
It was the first prosecution under a protest law passed last month as part of the government's efforts to rein in near-daily street demonstrations by Morsi supporters. Rights groups say the law, which levies harsh penalties for a variety of offences linked to protests, shows intent to suppress all dissent. The government says the statute is necessary after three years of unrest that have devastated the economy.
April 6 spearheaded the protests against longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak that began on January 25, 2011, and led to his overthrow. They also backed the military's July 3 ouster of Morsi after another round of mass protests. But they were alarmed by the new protest law, many arguing it was more repressive than the laws in place during Mubarak's time.
Amr Ali, coordinator for April 6, said the new statute, under which another dozen members of the group face charges, is a continuation of a Mubarak-era policy, turning to a "security solution" to deal with political problems.
"The youth of the revolution who call for freedom, democracy and their right to protest ... are today tried unfairly and, according to a dictatorial law that reflects this current regime and this current phase, basically turning against the ideals of the revolution," Ali said in a news conference after the verdict.
"We will continue to escalate against the protest law, against this repressive regime," he said. He appealed to Cabinet ministers critical of the law to resign in protest.
Defence lawyer Alaa Abdel-Tawab said he would appeal the court decision, describing it as "political" and "exceptionally harsh" for a misdemeanour court. The three were each fined US$7,250.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said the law, coupled with a recent raid on a local NGO and the continued crackdown on Islamist protesters, were strong signals that the government was in "no mood for dissent of any kind".
Heba Morayef, the group's Egypt director, said the prosecutions were the "beginning of a serious crackdown on the January 25 generation of protesters".
She said the interior ministry, which is in charge of the police, blames them for its "loss of status" during the 2011 unrest, which saw the police routed in street battles and police stations attacked.