Uproar over contrasting sentences in Egypt trials

CAIRO - Two high-profile Egyptian trials, both arising from years of turbulent protests, have delivered sharply contrasting sentences within just a few months.

In March, a policeman was convicted of shooting at protesters, deliberately aiming at their eyes, during demonstrations in November 2011. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

This week, 21 women and teenage girls were found guilty of obstructing traffic during a pro-Islamist protest last month. The 14 women were imprisoned for 11 years. The seven under the age of 18 were sent to juvenile prison.

The verdicts stunned the opposition and rights campaigners, even by the standards of a crackdown where security forces have killed hundreds of Islamists and arrested thousands since the July overthrow of president Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The ruling was shocking. We could not believe that Egypt would lock up its girls with the excuse that they are a threat to security," said Mr Ramadan Abdel Hamid, whose 15-year-old daughter Rawda and wife Salwa were among those sentenced. "Is this what is going to calm Egypt?"

The security forces have been lionised by state and private media which denounce the Brotherhood as terrorists.

But convicting women and girls who back Mursi has raised the campaign to a new level that could risk provoking a backlash.

So far, there have been no street protests against the sentences, but criticism has appeared on social media.

Leftist leader Hamdeen Sabahi called for a presidential pardon, even though he is a fierce opponent of the Brotherhood.

The sentences could give the unpopular Brotherhood political ammunition as it tries to recover from the crackdown that has all but decimated the movement.

In a statement, an alliance of pro-Brotherhood parties said the verdict "proved that the independence of the judiciary has passed away".

Street protests are a highly sensitive issue in a country where people power has led to the downfall of two presidents in less than three years, beginning with autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The sentencing of the women and girls coincided with tensions over a law passed this week that tightly restricts demonstrations.

While many Egyptians support army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his promised "road map towards elections", even non-Islamists are becoming more critical of the military, suggesting that the authorities may have to tread more cautiously.

"I was surprised by how quickly this case was decided," said Mr Anwar El Sadat, a former member of the People's Assembly and chairman of its human rights committee. "I was hoping they would show some mercy, especially because it's women and girls."