Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah stands behind bars with fellow defendants during their verdict at a police institute in Cairo’s Tora prison on February 23, 2015. AFP/Khaled Desouki.
Updated at 5:00 pm(GMT+2):Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promised on Sunday to release young people who may have been wrongly jailed during a military crackdown on the opposition since he overthrew his Islamist predecessor in 2013.
Meanwhile, on Monday a prominent activist in the country’s 2011 uprising was sentenced to five years in prison by an Egyptian court, while a military court postponed the trial of the Muslim Brotherhood’s leader and 198 other Islamists.
Sisi’s speech was broadcast on prime time television and was interspersed with clips of him greeting leaders of wealthy Gulf Arab states, Western powers and Egyptian army officers.
He said journalists had complained that there were innocent people in prison, so he told them to draw up a list.
“I told them I don’t deny there might be innocent youths” in prison, Sisi said.
“Over the next few days the first group of our youths in detention will be released,” he added.
Meanwhile, a court on Monday sentenced Alaa Abdel Fattah, a leading dissident in the 2011 uprising that toppled strongman Hosni Mubarak, to five years in prison over an illegal protest.
The remaining 24 defendants in the case received sentences ranging from three to 15 years.Fattah had initially been sentenced to 15 years in jail but a court ordered a retrial.
The defendants in the caged dock mockingly applauded when the judge pronounced the verdict, as relatives and supporters in the courtroom chanted “down with military rule.”
They had been arrested after a November 2014 protest outside parliament in defiance of a law that banned all demonstrations but for those authorized by the police.
Three defendants were sentenced to 15 years because they were not present in the court. The rest received three years in prison and all were fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds (about $13,000).
Sisi has come under increasing criticism for a deadly crackdown on Islamists that has also repressed secular and leftist opposition activists. Rights groups say that more than 20,000 people, mostly Islamists, have been jailed in the crackdown since the then-army chief toppled President Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013.
Sisi also sought to reassure Egyptians on Sunday that he is in control and steering the country on the right path in the face of Islamist militancy in the Sinai Peninsula and neighboring Libya, as well as Egypt’s economic challenges.
His comments came after Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants beheaded 21 Egyptians in Libya — bloodshed which led to retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes — and one of the worst attacks on security forces in the Sinai in months.
“The strike hit 13 targets that had been studied accurately,” Sisi said of the Egyptian airstrikes in Libya, claiming that the Egyptian army was not an aggressor and that the attack was necessary.
The former army chief dedicated a major portion of his speech to financial patrons United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, who backed his toppling of Mursi.
Sisi said ties with those countries were still strong despite attempts by unnamed parties to divide the allies, a reference to a leaked audio recording that purported to show him and senior aides speaking derisively of rich Gulf donors.
“This support was the main reason why Egypt was able to persevere against all of the challenges and difficulties,” Sisi stressed.
Aside from militants over the border in Libya, Sisi faces an insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula, where ISIS’s Egyptian wing claimed responsibility for a series of attacks that killed over 30 members of the security forces in January.
“The army and police are exerting big efforts to regain complete control of the Sinai,” Sisi added.Sisi’s crackdown has neutralized the Brotherhood but failed to end the insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula.
Although the Egyptian government claims to be “making progress in its daily war on terror,” local activists criticize security agencies for lacking a mechanism to mitigate the impact of security operations on innocent people in Sinai Peninsula.
In April, the Egyptian Observatory for Rights and Freedoms issued a report about the Egyptian army’s operations in North Sinai in which it talked about “systematic violations committed by the Egyptian armed forces.”
Brotherhood leader’s trial postponed
Meanwhile, An Egyptian military court has postponed to March 9 the trial of the Muslim Brotherhood leader and 198 other Islamists over deadly clashes after Mursi’s ouster, an army official said on Monday.
Mohammed Badie, 71, and the other defendants are accused of participating in clashes that killed 31 people in the canal city of Suez between August 14 and 16, 2013.
The clashes erupted after police brutally broke up two pro-Mursi protest camps in Cairo on August 14 that year. The police attacks killed hundreds of Mursi’s supporters, just weeks after the Islamist president was ousted by the army.
Badie has already been sentenced by three separate criminal courts to three life terms, and he was also handed down two death sentences that were later overturned on appeal.
An army official said the charges against Badie and others in the military trial include vandalism, inciting violence, murder, assaulting military personnel, and setting fire to armored personnel carriers and two churches in the city of Suez.
Military tribunals in Egypt have regularly faced criticism for their harsh and swift verdicts.
Egypt’s constitution allows military trials of civilians accused of violence targeting military targets, which include public infrastructure like highways and bridges as well as universities.
(Reuters, AFP, Al-Akhbar)