CAIRO: An Egyptian court on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) sentenced to life 230 secular activists from the 2011 revolt against long-time strongman Hosni Mubarak, including leading campaigner Ahmed Douma, an official said.
Thirty-nine others, all minors, were jailed for 10 years. A life sentence in Egypt is 25 years.
The verdict, which can be appealed, is the harshest delivered so far against non-Islamist activists amid a government crackdown on opponents overseen by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Hundreds of Islamist supporters of Mubarak’s successor, Mohamed Morsi, have been sentenced to death after often speedy trials described by the United Nations as “unprecedented in recent history.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, all 269 defendants were convicted of taking part in clashes with security forces near Cairo’s Tahrir Square in December 2011, said the judicial official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
They were also found guilty of assaulting security forces and setting alight government buildings, including a cultural center founded in 1798 by Napoleon Bonaparte that contained more than 200,000 books.
The defendants were also ordered to pay a combined fine of $2.2 million (1.9 million euros).
Douma, 26, rose to prominence during the 2011 uprising that drove Mubarak from power and was also a key protest leader against Morsi.
On Wednesday, dressed in a prison uniform, Douma was the sole defendant present in a metal cage inside the courtroom.
All defendants except for Douma were tried in absentia, as the authorities had released the others earlier ordering them to be present as and when required.
As the verdict was read out, Douma clapped his hands, angering Judge Mohamed Negi Shehata.
“You are not in Tahrir Square. Behave yourself and don’t talk too much or I’ll give you three more years” for contempt of court, the judge said.
Douma is already serving three years for violating a law prohibiting unlicensed protests, and was also given a three-year sentence at a previous hearing of the current trial for insulting the judiciary.
Defense lawyer Sameh Samir criticized Wednesday’s ruling.
“The judge has been biased against the defendants and their lawyers since the start of the trial,” Samir said.
“He referred the defense lawyers to prosecution, he barred us from attending the hearings and now he has issued an unprecedented verdict in Egypt’s history,” he added.
Washington condemned the verdict.
“Mass trials and sentences run counter to the most basic democratic principles and due process under the law,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, adding it “seems impossible that a fair review of evidence and testimony could be achieved under these circumstances.”
The European Union (EU) likewise criticized the decision, saying Egypt was violating its international human rights obligations.
“The EU calls on the Egyptian authorities to respect their international obligations, and ensure the right to a fair trial,” it said in a statement.