CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Wednesday convicted a prominent activist from the country’s 2011 uprising of organizing an unauthorized protest and assaulting a policeman, sentencing him to 15 years in prison, in the latest blow to the liberal pro-democracy movement at a time of rapidly eroding freedoms.
The sentence against Alaa Abdel-Fattah is by far the toughest against any of the pro-democracy activists behind the 18-day uprising that ended Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year reign. It is also the first conviction of a prominent activist since former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took office as president on Sunday.
In the 11 months since el-Sissi ousted the country’s first freely elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, authorities have launched a massive crackdown on Islamists, detaining at least 16,000 and killing hundreds. That crackdown has overshadowed another, albeit smaller, campaign against secular activists opposed to what they see as the revival of Mubarak’s police state.
The crackdown is being carried out in the face of a burgeoning insurgency by Islamic militants sympathetic to Morsi, who have killed and wounded hundreds of policemen and army troops.
As the government has moved to curb freedoms won in the 2011 revolt — including by enacting a law that severely restricts protests — pro-military media have stoked a resurgent nationalism and eagerly welcomed the return of a military man to the presidential palace, portraying el-Sissi as a powerful leader who can restore stability after three years of turmoil.
Security officials said that while Abdel-Fattah was convicted and sentenced in absentia, he did turn up at the Cairo courtroom later on Wednesday and was detained by police. The absentia sentencing means that he now faces an automatic retrial, although the conviction stands in the meantime.
A human rights lawyer and family members said the judge opened the proceedings earlier than scheduled and that Abdel-Fattah was kept waiting outside the courthouse, at a police academy just south of Cairo, as he sought permission from the judge to enter the heavily guarded complex.
The case against Abdel-Fattah dates back to Nov. 26, when he was accused of inciting an “unauthorized” demonstration against a clause allowing military trials for civilians in the draft of a new constitution, which was later adopted by referendum.
Abdel-Fattah did not take part in the demonstration, which was violently disbanded by police on the grounds that organizers had no permit. Female participants were snatched by police and thrown into a van before being dumped in the middle of the desert that night.
Two other leading activists from the 2011 uprising, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Doumah, are now serving three-year sentences for their alleged part in the November protest.
“The verdicts are meant to exact revenge and send a message of intimidation to whoever dares to speak up against injustice. But the result will be more anger, not fear,” said prominent lawyer and rights activist Gamal Eid.
“Justice is part of the past now, and revenge is the rule,” he added.
Prosecutors accused Abdel-Fattah of organizing an illegal demonstration and illegal possession of an object that could be used as a weapon. He and 24 other defendants are accused of using force to take a policeman’s two-way radio, wounding him in the process, blocking traffic and posing a threat to public safety and order.
The 24 were also convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail in absentia. At least two of them were also arrested with Abdel-Fattah in the morning.
El-Sissi has said that he intends to uphold the protest law and that freedom of speech will have to take a back seat to restoring security and reviving the nation’s ailing economy.
In his inauguration speech on Sunday, he said freedoms must be limited by “religious and moral principles” and that criticism must be objective and free of slander.
“Anything below that is anything but freedom and instead is anarchy that appears well intentioned on the surface but is not in actual fact,” said the 59-year-old el-Sissi. In a thinly veiled threat to activists, he said there would be zero tolerance for anyone who seeks to “disrupt our march toward the future.”
Abdel-Fattah, an outspoken blogger, has been in and out of prison in the three years since Mubarak’s ouster. He campaigned against military trials for civilians during the 17 months that generals held power following Mubarak’s resignation. He opposed Morsi, but strongly disapproved of the military’s return to politics.
Abdel-Fattah wrote on his Twitter account before his arrest Wednesday that he was taken aback by the large number of cases before the judge. “Anyway, may God be merciful,” he wrote.
Egyptian courts have been meting out unusually harsh sentences against Islamists and others in recent months, prompting many rights activists to raise questions about the judiciary’s integrity.
Hundreds of Islamists have been sentenced to death, in one case after just two court hearings. There have also been a growing number of reports by rights groups of abuse, and torture in some cases.
Activists have meanwhile contrasted a recent string of what they see as lenient rulings for policemen accused of abuse or killing protesters and the heavy sentences given to anti-military activists.
Last month, Mubarak and his two sons were sentenced to three years in prison after their conviction for graft. Days later, prominent activist and rights lawyer Mahinour el-Masry was sentenced to two years in prison for breaking the protest law.
This week, a Cairo appeals court canceled prison sentences passed against four policemen convicted of manslaughter in the case of 37 alleged Morsi supporters who suffocated to death inside a police vehicle on Aug. 18. Also this week, a policeman who had been convicted of torturing to death an ultraconservative Muslim was released pending a retrial. The man who died in custody, Sayed Belal, had been arrested over a 2010 church bombing in Alexandria, and the officer was initially sentenced to 15 years in prison.