An Egyptian court today confirmed death sentences against 21 people for their role in a deadly 2012 football riot that killed more than 70 people in the city of Port Said.
The court also sentenced the city's former security chief, Maj. Gen. Essam Samak, to 15 years in prison. Samak was the most senior of nine security officials tried for their part in the riot. Another police official, a colonel, was also sentenced to 15 years in prison. The other seven were acquitted.
Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid, who read out the verdict at a Cairo courthouse, sentenced five more defendants to life in prison and eight others — besides Samak and the police colonel — 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. A total of 28 people were acquitted.
The trial has been the source of some of the worst unrest in recent weeks to hit Egypt, which is already grappling with mass political protests and a crumbling economy. After the 21 people — most of them fans of Port Said's Al-Masry club — were first sentenced to death on 28 January, violent riots erupted in the city that left some 40 people dead, most of them shot by police.
Many residents of Port Said, which is located on the Mediterranean at the northern tip of the Suez Canal, have seen the trial as unjust and politicized, and soccer fans in the city have felt that authorities were biased in favor of Al-Ahly, Egypt's most powerful club.
The bloodshed unleashed by the verdict in January had many in Egypt bracing for the possibility of more violence following today's sentencing, although both Port Said and Cairo were calm immediately following the verdict, which was broadcast live on Egyptian TV.
The February 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.
Today, thousands of Al-Ahly fans who had gathered outside the club's headquarters in Cairo welcomed the verdict, but their response was muted compared to the wild celebrations following the January death sentences.
In Port Said, a city that has for weeks been in open rebellion against the government of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, several hundred people, many of them relatives of the defendants, gathered outside the local government offices to vent their anger.
Port Said has been the centre of the heaviest violence in the latest wave of unrest, which began on 25 January, when hundreds of thousands across the country marked the second anniversary of the start of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak's regime two years ago.
Cairo, the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, and several cities in the Nile Delta north of the capital have all been swept up in the unrest as well.
During clashes between police and protesters the past week that killed eight people, Port Said also saw dangerous frictions between police and the military. Army troops trying to break up the clashes at one point fired over the heads of police forces, which had been shooting tear gas in their direction.
At least some of the anger city residents feel for the police was in part defused yesteryday when police handed over security control in the city to the military.