CAIRO, May 15, (Agencies): Egyptian courts have handed out jail sentences on the weekend to 152 people for taking part in unlicensed anti-government protests, judicial officials and lawyers said on Sunday.
The rulings were issued on Saturday by separate courts, with a first group of 51 people sentenced to two years in jail and later in the evening 151 others given five-year sentences for the same reasons.
International and domestic rights groups accuse President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of running an ultra-authoritarian and repressive regime with zero tolerance for dissent in a crackdown that has been escalating since he deposed in 2013 his democratically elected Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi.
The defendants were among scores who were detained on April 25 during or on the sidelines of anti-government protests, including against Egypt’s decision to handover to Saudi Arabia two Red Sea islands.
“We are in a state of shock since yesterday,” defence lawyer Mohamed Abdelaziz, director of Al-Haqanya foundation of rights and freedoms, said on Sunday.
Their verdicts can be appealed.
“The whole case is built on random arrests,” said rights lawyer Mokhtar Mounir from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
He said most of the defendants were aged between 20 and 25 and that many had been arrested arbitrarily by the police as they were out on the streets or in cafes but not taking part in any demonstration. Police had quickly dispersed protests against the islands deal on April 25 and arrested dozens of people. Prosecutors charged them with participation in illegal rallies.
The deal to hand over the islands in the Straits of Tiran had galvanised dissidents who oppose Sisi.
In the leadup to the protests, police already made dozens of arrests to discourage a repeat of a large rally on April 15 at which demonstrators chanted for the “fall of the regime”.
The government says the islands had always belonged to Saudi Arabia and that Egypt had merely administered them while on lease since the 1950s.
Critics accuse Sisi of “selling” the islands in return for Saudi investments.
Since Morsi’s ouster authorities have banned all but police-approved rallies in line with a presidential decree and overseen a crackdown that has killed hundreds of Islamist protesters and thousands imprisoned.
Several secular and leftist activists who spearheaded the 2011 uprising against longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak have also been jailed
The sentences were passed late Saturday, hours after another Cairo court sentenced another 51 protesters to two years in jail for their part in last month’s demonstrations, which were called to protest Egypt’s decision to hand over control of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia as part of a demarcation deal.
A massive police deployment on April 25 stifled the planned demonstrations, prompting activists to stage small, flash protests in various parts of the capital. More than 1,200 arrests were made in the run-up to April 25 and on the day. Most of them have been released but nearly 300 faced formal charges and were referred to trial for breaking the protest law.
The arrests and Saturday’s sentences signaled the government’s zero tolerance for dissent. El-Sissi says he has to balance safeguarding rights with his government’s fight against a resilient insurgency by Islamic militants in Sinai and efforts to revive the economy. He has repeatedly insisted that Egypt’s human rights record must not be judged by Western standards.
Meanwhile, an Egyptian court on Sunday handed down seven-year prison sentences to six men convicted of beating to death jailed Frenchman Eric Lang in 2013.
The 49-year-old, who taught French in Cairo, died after a beating in a cell on Sept 13, having been detained in a police station because he did not have a valid visa.
According to the prosecution’s case, six inmates in his cell had beaten him to death. They were convicted on Sunday of “assault leading to death”.
A defendants’ lawyer had called into question the prosecution’s case, arguing the autopsy showed he had been beaten for more than six hours with a rod and electric cables, suggesting police involvement.
Lang’s mother and sister had also cast doubts on the official account, and filed complaints against police officials over the failure to rescue him.
He had been detained during a tense time in Cairo, when police and the military had been out in force to quash protests by Islamist supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi.
The verdict on Sunday comes as Egypt fends off accusations of police involvement in the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni, whose badly mutilated body as found after he disappeared in Cairo in January.
Egypt has denied police were involved in Regeni’s death.