Fans rampage in Cairo after soccer riot verdict

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CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Saturday confirmed the death sentences against 21 people for taking part in a deadly soccer riot but acquitted seven police officials for their alleged role in the violence. Suspected fans enraged by the verdict torched the soccer federation headquarters and a police club in Cairo in protest.

The trial over the melee that killed 74 people after a soccer game in the city of Port Said in early 2012 has been the source of some of the worst unrest to hit Egypt in recent weeks. After the court sentenced the 21 people — most of them Port Said fans — to death in late January, violent riots erupted in the city that left some 40 people dead, most of them shot by police.

On Saturday, the court announced its verdict for the other 52 defendants in the case, sentencing 45 of them to prison, including two senior police officers who got 15 years terms each. Twenty-eight people were acquitted, including seven police officials.

As expected, the court’s decision failed to defuse tensions over the case, which has taken on political undercurrents at a time when the entire nation is mired in political turmoil, a worsening economy and growing opposition to the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

Shortly after the verdict was announced Saturday, suspected fans of Cairo’s Al-Ahly club who had gathered in the thousands outside the team’s headquarters in central Cairo went on a rampage, torching a police club nearby and storming Egypt’s soccer federation headquarters before setting it ablaze. The twin fires sent plumes of thick black smoke billowing out over the Cairo skyline. Two army helicopters were being used to put out the fires.

At least five people were injured in the protests, a Health Ministry official told the MENA state news agency.

In anticipation of more violence, authorities beefed up security near the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police force, with riot police deploying in the streets around the complex in central Cairo.

Earlier at the courthouse across town, Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid read out the verdict live on TV, sentencing five defendants to life in prison and nine others to 15 years in jail. Six defendants received 10-year jail terms, two more got five years and a single defendant received a 12-month sentence.

The court’s decision on the nine Port Said security officers on trial was among the most highly anticipated — and potentially explosive — verdicts. In the end, the judges sentenced the city’s former security chief, Maj. Gen. Essam Samak, and a colonel both to 15 years in prison, while the others were acquitted.

Al-Ahly’s fans accuse the police of collusion in the killing of their fellow supporters, arguing that they had advance knowledge of plans by supporters of Port Said’s Al-Masry to attack them. They also accuse them of standing by as the Al-Masry fans set upon the visiting Al-Ahly supporters.

The court rulings can be appealed.

Many residents of Port Said, which is located on the Mediterranean at the northern tip of the vital Suez Canal, say the trial is unjust and politicized, and soccer fans in the city have felt that authorities have been biased in favor of Al-Ahly, Egypt’s most powerful club.

The Feb. 2012 riot followed a league match between Al-Masry and Cairo’s Al-Ahly club, with Port Said supporters setting upon the visiting fans after the final whistle. The deadly melee is Egypt’s worst soccer disaster.

Before the fires broke out, thousands of Al-Ahly fans had gathered outside the club’s headquarters in Cairo. They appeared divided on whether to welcome the verdicts or consider them flawed.

“We came for the rulings on the defendants from the police,” said one fan who refused to give his name. “Why should I be happy when most of them were acquitted?”

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