CAIRO (AP) — A court on Wednesday convicted a prominent activist from Egypt's 2011 uprising for demonstrating without permit and assaulting a policeman, sentencing him to 15 years in prison.
The sentence against Alaa Abdel-Fattah is by far the toughest against any of the liberal, pro-democracy activists behind the 18-day uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's 29-year regime. 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 return of Mubarak-era policies.
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.
The case against Abdel-Fattah dates back to late last year when he was accused of taking part in an "unauthorized" demonstration against a controversial law that places rigid restrictions on street protests.
According to prosecutors, Abdel-Fattah was accused of taking part in an illegal demonstration, using force to take possession of a two-way radio held by a policeman and blocking traffic.
Twenty-four defendants in the same case were also convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail in absentia.
El-Sissi has said that he intends to uphold the protest law and that freedom of speech will have to take a back seat while he gives priority to restoring security and reviving the nation's ailing economy.
In his inauguration speech on Sunday, he said freedoms must be structured within "religious and moral principles" and 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 wants to "disrupt our march toward the future" or anyone who seek "a spineless state."
Abdel-Fattah, an outspoken blogger, has been in and out of prison in the three years since Mubarak's ouster. He and his activist sister, Mona Seif, were leading figures in the protest movement that forced Mubarak to step down in 2011 and both have vigorously campaigned against military trials for civilians under the rule of the generals who took over from Mubarak and ruled Egypt for nearly 17 months.
They supported the removal of Morsi in July last year but strongly disapprove of the military's return to politics and the harsh crackdown by authorities on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists.
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 whether the judiciary was beholden to the military or the government it backs.
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, or torture in some cases, by the security forces of detainees in jail or in police lockups. The groups have also spoken of the prosecutors' acquiescence of abuses by the police.