Twenty-one female protesters who were jailed after taking part in a demonstration in support of Egypt’s ousted president, Mohamed Morsi, have been freed on appeal after their harsh prison terms drew international outcry, state media have said.
The 14 women and seven girls under 18, have had their convictions upheld. But an appeals court judge on Saturday reduced the 14 adults’ jail terms to suspended one-year sentences – which allows them to walk free. The seven girls were also released from detention and their sentences were reduced to three months’ probation.
The women were arrested in October at a pro-Morsi protest outside a school in Alexandria. Although the demonstration ended peacefully, the group was accused of violence and of belonging to a terrorist organization. They were handed Draconian sentences that were noted as being four years longer than those given to two Alexandrian policemen who killed a man in the buildup to Egypt’s 2011 revolution.
Critics of Egypt’s new administration saw the sentences as politicized – symptomatic of a crackdown on Morsi’s Islamist supporters. More than a thousand pro-Morsi protesters have been killed by police and soldiers at demonstrations since July, and many more are currently detained without charge.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a global campaign group, called the convictions “blatantly political” and said they lacked credible evidence, in a statement released on Saturday.
“Prosecuting these young women for participating in a demonstration, while security forces who killed hundreds of protesters roam free, should shock our collective conscience,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and north Africa director.
She added: “This prosecution fits into Egypt’s new normal – clamping down on protests, and criminalizing dissent.”
Morsi was himself criticized for what his opponents saw as autocratic tendencies – but many now feel the current administration has gone far further.
In November, the government enacted a controversial new law that severely curbs the right to protest legislation that Morsi tried and failed to implement before his removal.
In recent weeks, police have also begun to target activists who originally called for Morsi’s removal in June, and who were previously targeted by the administrations of both Morsi and Hosni Mubarak.
Three high-profile activists prominent during the 2011 uprising were sent to trial this week, while another was arrested during a raid on his home last week and is still held without charge.