An Egyptian court jailed prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, a symbol of the 2011 revolt against Hosni Mubarak, for 15 years Wednesday for assaulting a policeman during an illegal protest.
On bail since March, he and two co-defendants were arrested immediately after the ruling as they waited to be allowed to enter the makeshift court at a Cairo police academy.
The court handed down similar sentences to 24 co-defendants, none of whom were in court, after convicting them on charges ranging from participating in an illegal protest to rioting, blocking roads and assaulting policemen, judicial sources said.
They were also fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds each ($13,948/10,256 euros).
Because the verdict was pronounced in absentia, Abdel Fattah will be granted a retrial, said his father Ahmed Seif, who is also his lawyer.
“According to Egyptian law, the ruling is in absentia because the defence lawyers had not presented their case,” Seif told AFP.
“Alaa was not allowed to enter the court,” he said, denouncing what he said was a hasty ruling issued after just a few hearings.
“We had not yet watched any of the video evidence” in the case, he said, “nor had the prosecution and defence presented their cases.”
The sentencing comes just days after the swearing in of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who has vowed to return Egypt to stability rather than pursue democratic freedoms.
“Sisi’s presidency will not return (Egypt) to the Mubarak era; it will be worse than the Mubarak regime,” Abdel Fattah himself told AFP in May.
Since Sisi ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last July, the authorities have waged a harsh crackdown on Morsi’s supporters as well as the secular opposition.
Seif said “the real objective of such rulings… is to prevent those criticising the regime from running in the (upcoming) parliamentary elections.”
– ‘Is Egypt on right track?’-
The verdict triggered immediate reactions on social networks.
“Does anyone believe Egypt is on the right track? How many indications of the opposite do you need,” asked one tweet.
Abdel Fattah and the others were accused of stealing a walkie-talkie from a policeman during a November protest organised to denounce increased powers given to the military in a new draft constitution.
The protest was deemed illegal under a new law that banned all but police-sanctioned demonstrations, and which has since been used to send dozens of activists to jail.
Secular activists have roundly criticised the law, saying Morsi’s ouster itself was result of mass street protests against his turbulent year-long rule.
Sisi’s opponents say he is bent on establishing an autocratic regime worse than that of Mubarak.
In April, an appeals court upheld three-year prison sentences for three other prominent activists. Among them was the founder of the April 6 youth movement, Ahmed Maher, charged with violating the protest law.
The April 6 group, which was also a symbol of the anti-Mubarak uprising, has been banned.
Since Morsi’s ouster, a government crackdown on Islamist supporters has left more than 1,400 dead in street clashes and seen at least 15,000 people jailed.
Hundreds have also been sentenced to death in speedy mass trials that have triggered an international outcry.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood was blacklisted as a terrorist organisation in December after authorities blamed it for bombing a police headquarters.
The group has denied any involvement in violence rocking the country since Morsi’s ouster.
Meanwhile, militants have unleashed a deadly campaign against security forces that has killed nearly 500 policemen and soldiers in bombings and shootings since July.