An Egyptian court Tuesday sentenced ousted president Mohamed Morsi to 20 years in prison for abuses against protesters but acquitted the Islamist leader of charges carrying a possible death penalty.
Morsi was convicted of ordering the arrest and torture of demonstrators involved in clashes in 2012 when he was president, in a verdict Amnesty International denounced as a "travesty of justice".
Fourteen others were convicted of the same charges, with most also sentenced by the Cairo court to 20 years in jail. It acquitted the defendants of inciting murder in connection with the deaths of a journalist and two protesters during the December 5, 2012 clashes outside the presidential palace in Cairo.
Morsi, dressed in a white prison uniform and standing in a sound-proof cage, raised his fists when the verdict was announced, an AFP correspondent reported from the court room. Defence lawyers said they would appeal the convictions while rights groups voiced alarm at the ruling, the first in a series of trials Morsi is facing.
"This verdict shatters any remaining illusion of independence and impartiality in Egypt's criminal justice system," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Amnesty International.
She called for a full retrial or the ex-president's release. Egypt's first freely elected leader, Morsi came to power following the 2011 ouster of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. But after just a year in power, Morsi was himself toppled by then-army chief and now President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi following mass street protests.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has been blacklisted and targeted in a government crackdown that has seen hundreds killed and thousands thrown in jail. Other Brotherhood leaders have been sentenced to death and Tuesday's decision to acquit Morsi on the incitement to murder charge left some surprised.
"We were expecting them to be convicted of murder," Ramy Ghanem, a lawyer for an anti-Morsi protester who was wounded in the clashes, told AFP. "But the sentences are not bad. We were expecting life in prison, but then 20 years is not very different," he said.
A life sentence in Egypt is 25 years. Hundreds of Morsi supporters have been sentenced to death in speedy mass trials which the United Nations has called "unprecedented in recent history".
The pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance condemned Tuesday's verdict. "The judiciary is a toy in the hands of the brutal military authority that is used to taking revenge on those who oppose it, and is a means to kill and detain," it said in a statement. Morsi is facing two other trials in which he could face the death penalty, including on a charge of spying for foreign powers.
Verdicts in those two cases are due on May 16. Sisi has vowed to "eradicate" the Brotherhood, an 85-year-old movement that topped successive polls between Mubarak's fall and Morsi's presidential election victory in May 2012. The authorities designated it a "terrorist group" in December 2013, making even verbal expressions of support punishable by stiff jail terms.
The crackdown has sparked a fierce backlash including from jihadist groups, who have claimed a string of deadly attacks on security forces. Sisi was elected president in May last year, but he faced no serious challengers and - in a country where the army has held the reins of power for decades - his victory dashed the hopes of pro-democracy protesters who ousted Mubarak.
Sisi's regime is popular among many Egyptians tired of political turmoil and seeking stability and economic growth. But Sisi has been accused of repression and his crackdown has also targeted secular and liberal activists who spearheaded the uprising against Mubarak.
In November, a court dropped murder charges against Mubarak in his own trial over the deaths of hundreds of protesters in 2011.