Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Egypt is bracing itself for a fresh wave of violence in the city of Port Said after a court confirmed the death sentences of 21 people convicted for their part in a deadly football riot last year.
Port Said has seen outbreaks of violence since the verdict was announced at the end of January. Riots and clashes between protestors and the police connected to the court case have led to several fatalities in the past week, and left more than 200 people injured.
This has led the government to take the step of authorizing the Egyptian army to take over responsibility for public order in the city, following a dramatic rupture in the relationship between local people and the civil police.
As well as confirming the death sentence imposed on 21 of the defendants, the Port Said Criminal Court acquitted 28 more, sentencing five to life in prison.
The riot at the center of the case took place at a match in Port Suez last February between local team Al-Masry and Cairo’s Al-Ahly.
74 people were killed when crowds of people tried to flee the stadium after a pitch invasion by supporters of Al-Masry. Most of those killed were supporters of Al-Ahly.
The court upheld the 21 death sentences, while 5 out of the total 52 defendants in the case were sentenced to life imprisonment for rioting. The others received lesser sentences or were acquitted altogether.
Port Said security chief Essam Samak and nine other defendants were each sentenced to 15 years in jail. However 7 police officers walked free, with only two police officers being jailed. Eye-witnesses claim that the police deployed at the stadium passively remained on the sidelines and did not intervene to stop the violence.
Many residents of the city say they have been singled out for blame and the protests and violence that have beset Port Said over the past weeks represents a general state of anger towards the Mursi government in Cairo. However the capital’s Al-Ahly fans were also dismayed by the court’s decision, viewing this as being too lenient, particularly the acquittal of a number of police officers.
One police officer, Mohamed Saad, was one of the men sentenced to imprisonment. He was convicted of closing the exits through which many present in the stadium later tried to use to escape.
Some Port Said residents accused the government of interfering in the trial. Their comments were echoed by Port Said’s former MP, Said Al-Badry Farghaly, who told satellite TV channel Al-Jazeera Mubasher Misr: “The ruling is political, not legal. They wanted to victimize Port Said residents for the Ultras Ahlawy [Al-Ahly supporters].”
According to press reports, some Port Said residents attempted to disrupt traffic on the Suez Canal by setting boats adrift in protest to the verdict.
Suez Canal Authority spokesman Tarek Hassanein told state news agency MENA that the canal has not been affected by these attempts, emphasizing that shipping traffic is “completely safe”.
The final verdict saw the 21 death sentences—announced on January 26—upheld. In addition to this, 5 defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. 2 policemen, former Port Said security director Essam Samak and head of Port Said security department Mohamed Saad, received 15 year prison sentences. 7 other defendants received 15 year sentences. 6 defendants received 10 year sentences. 2 defendants received 5 year sentences, while the final defendant received a 12-month prison sentence.
28 other defendants were acquitted of all charges, including 7 police officers. The acquittals includes former head of Port Said’s police investigation department Mostafa Razaz, former head of the Suez Canal’s Central Security Forces Abdel-Aziz Sami, and former head of Port Said national security directorate Bahy El-Din Zaghloul. The other four police officers were all aides of these senior officials.
Also acquitted were the only two Al-Masry club officials charged with wrongdoing, Mohsen Sheta who served as executive director of the club at the time of the events, along with former head of security Mohamed El-Desouki.