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In Egypt, 12 Al-Azhar Students Sentenced to 17 Years in Jail

CAIRO—A misdemeanor court has sentenced 12 pro-Morsi students from Al Azhar University to 17 years in prison on charges connected to riots at the Sheikdom, or off-campus headquarters of the Al-Azhar Islamic institution of which the university is a part.

The defendants were also asked to pay bail of 64,000 Egyptian pounds ($9,300) each, or remain in custody until their case goes to an appeals court. Only two of the defendants could afford bail.

The 12 defendants were found guilty of attempting to storm the headquarters, inciting riots, attacking Al-Azhar employees and security personnel, possessing guns and ammunition, and sabotaging public and private property.

Pro-Muslim Brotherhood students view the Al Azhar administration as having been complicit in the military’s removal of Mohamed Morsi from the presidency. Those students have responded with fierce and, at times, violent protests.

Secular human-rights lawyers, including Hamdy Khalaf, an Alexandria-based lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, viewed the verdict as a “tougher-than-expected penalty.” The sentences are being viewed as a warning message for Muslim Brotherhood supporters that the judiciary—which was in conflict with Morsi when he was in power—will not be easy on protestors.

According to Mohsen Bahnsy, another human-rights lawyer, the court issued “an excessive punishment” that far surpassed the crime committed.

“Such a starkly politicized verdict is going to ignite the street,” he said.

Bahnsy said in an interview that since the defendants are students they will have the right to appeal before the High Appeal court that could commute the sentences or acquit the students.

The sentences do not include students who rioted on campus on October 26 and attacked an administration building. Egypt’s prosecutor general has referred another 43 students of Al-Azhar University to the misdemeanor court.

On the day of the convictions, students marched after the sentences were handed down. They marched from the medical school to the university administration building and then headed off campus. Quarrels took place between students and motorists after the march arrived at al-Nasr Street, thereby blocking it. They soon returned inside the campus.

Mahmoud Salah, a spokesperson for Students Against the Coup, a federation of student groups that oppose the military’s recent actions, described the trial as “disgraceful.”

Egyptian universities have become a hub for pro-Morsi protests after the Muslim Brotherhood was hit hard by a nationwide crackdown by security forces after the breakup of the camps at Rabaa al-Adwya break up which left hundreds dead.

Since the beginning of the academic year in September, Egypt’s university campuses have been witnessing tense and sometimes violent demonstrations after the government rounded up Muslim Brotherhood leaders who call for the return of Mohamed Morsi as the legitimate president of the country. An estimated of 10,000 Muslim Brotherhood members are in prison, according to Faisal al-Sayyed, member of the Freedom and Justice Party’s legal committee, quoted on the Cairo-based Egyptian Independent website.

Widespread protests at campuses have continued this week.

An earlier version of this story said that the defendants had to pay a fine: That was incorrect. They were asked to pay bail.


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