Members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are seen during their trial in Alexandria on November 27, 2013
Members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are seen during their trial in Alexandria on November 27, 2013 © - AFP/File
Members of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood are seen during their trial in Alexandria on November 27, 2013
Last updated: December 7, 2013

Egypt appeals court orders 14 women protesters freed

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Egyptian appeals courts ordered the release Saturday of 21 women and girls jailed over an Islamist opposition protest, after reducing harsh sentences that had sparked outrage.

To chants of "God is greatest" from supporters in an Alexandria courtroom, the 14 women -- initially jailed for 11 years -- were ordered freed after receiving one-year suspended sentences.

The girls, whose case was heard in a separate court, were put on three months' probation after having initially been sentenced to juvenile detention.

The initial sentences shocked even supporters of the military-installed government when they were handed down last month, and images of the white-clad defendants also galvanised the Islamist opposition.

The women and girls were all released by nightfall, one of their lawyers said.

All 21 were convicted of taking part in a violent protest demanding Islamist president Mohamed Morsi's reinstatement following his overthrow by the army in July.

Wearing handcuffs but holding red roses, the 14 women appeared on Saturday dressed in white prison garb, with "freedom" scrawled in black marker on the palms of their hands.

Judge Sharif Hafiz found the 14 women guilty of three counts relating to violence during the protest, but reduced their sentence to one year and suspended it.

Their lawyer Ahmed al-Hamrawy had urged the court to acquit them, arguing there was no evidence against them.

"Even in Mubarak's era there were morals. Egypt's women and girls were a red line and they weren't placed on trial," he told the court, referring to ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, Morsi's predecessor.

He later welcomed the new sentences but said he would appeal them anyway to get acquittals for the defendants.

"The sentence is satisfying to a degree, and it has a humanitarian aspect... but we will appeal," Hamrawy told AFP.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch's director in Egypt, said the women and girls should not have been sentenced in the first place.

"They didn't have any evidence tying the women to the commissioning of any violence," she said.

During a recess before the appeals judge ruled, a defendant named Alma told AFP "this is an oppressive sentence."

She said her daughter was among the seven juveniles sentenced, and explained that they had both been near the October 31 protest by chance when arrested.

Another defendant, Aya Adel, said: "I have the right to express my opinion -- this is a constitutional right, and we are currently political prisoners."

Prosecutors charged that the women had fought with knives and thrown rocks during clashes that erupted at the protest in Egypt's second city.

Six men said to be Muslim Brotherhood leaders were tried in absentia in the same case and sentenced to 15 years.

They were found guilty of inciting the women to cut off key roads in Alexandria during the clashes.

There was a heavy police presence outside the court complex in the coastal city, where Morsi's Islamist supporters have repeatedly clashed with opponents and security forces.

During the recess, about 100 friends and relatives of the defendants stood outside the courtroom chanting "Down with military rule."

The jail terms, handed down the same week as a restrictive new protest law was imposed, re-energised Islamist opposition to the interim government and drew criticism even from its secular supporters.

Hamdeen Sabbahi, a former presidential candidate and leading dissident under Morsi, called on the interim president to pardon the girls and repeal the new law governing protests.

The military-installed government has pressed a crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood movement that has killed more than 1,000 people and imprisoned thousands.

Much of the Brotherhood's leadership, including Morsi, is on trial on various charges of inciting violence.

Courts have handed out harsh sentences to Islamist demonstrators, including 12 men imprisoned for 17 years after a violent protest in Cairo.

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