CAIRO - The jailing of three activists has triggered fears in Egypt of a return to the police rule that blighted the Mubarak era, eroding gains made in the march towards democracy.
On Sunday, a court jailed Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel to three years for organising an unauthorised protest in a verdict seen as the military-installed government broadening the crackdown on dissent.
It was the first such verdict against pro-democracy protesters since the July 3 overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi, whose Islamist supporters have borne the brunt of a deadly crackdown.
The three and Alaa Abdel Fattah, a vocal critic of the police and the military detained on similar charges, were at the forefront of the movement that toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak in 2011, beginning Egypt's march towards democracy.
But analysts say gains achieved since then are threatened by the targeting of such men and by other moves that could signal the return of a police state.
Pursuing these activists "is a deliberate effort to target the voices who, since January 2011, have consistently demanded justice and security agency reform," Human Rights Watch's Sarah Leah Whitson said in a statement.
"Almost three years after the nationwide protests that brought down Hosni Mubarak, security agencies feel more empowered than ever and are still intent on crushing the right of Egyptians to protest the actions of their government."
Activists have lashed out at the authorities for arming themselves with a new law banning all but police-sanctioned protests, calling it an attempt to stifle freedom of expression - a core value in the fight that toppled Mubarak.
The interim authorities justified the overthrow of Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, as a response to massive protests against his turbulent year-long reign, which critics said was marked by power-grabs and economic mismanagement.
More than 1,000 people have died in a crackdown on Morsi supporters and thousands have been arrested.
The sentencing of Maher, Douma and Adel came days after Ahmed Shafiq, a premier under Mubarak, and the ousted strongman's two sons were acquitted of corruption.
That verdict underscores a sharp reversal of fortune not just for Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement, but for the pro-democracy movement itself.