CAIRO — In a verdict that disappointed pro-democracy activists, two policemen who beat a man to death were convicted Wednesday of the lesser charge of manslaughter and given a relatively light sentence in a case that helped spark Egypt's uprising.
Relatives of defendants Mahmoud Salah and Awad Ismail Suleiman were still outraged by the sentence of seven years in prison each for the two officers. They smashed benches in the courtroom in the northern port of Alexandria and attacked the slain man's uncle and lawyers despite the presence of other police and military troops.
Pro-democracy activists expressed disappointment not only with the verdict but also with the fact that it was closed to the public, which they saw as signs that the revolution that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in February was having little effect on getting rid of deep-seated corruption in Egypt.
The slain man, Khaled Said, was widely seen as Egypt's version of Mohammed Bouazizi – the fruit seller whose self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution and the chain of Arab Spring uprisings in the region.
Last year's killing of the 28-year-old Said was a wake-up call for many Egyptians who complained about unchecked excessive force by police. Pictures of Said's bloodied face, broken jaw and bruised body were widely circulated and became a rallying point for activists campaigning against widespread intimidation and killings by police in the Mubarak era.
A Facebook page created in Said's memory was used to put out a call for the Jan. 25 protests that grew into the 18-day uprising that toppled Mubarak.
Said's uncle, Ali Kassem, said the lesser conviction and light sentence came as a shock and "revived their sadness over the death of Khaled."
Kassem said that he, lawyers and other family members were "besieged" in the courtroom, and instead of getting protection from the military police, one threatened to put one of Said's lawyers in the defendant's cage.
"Imagine the panic, the agony and the misery when you hear this verdict and then come under attack like this," he said.
Mahmoud el-Bakry, one of Said's lawyers, added: "The families of the policemen were about to kill me. I was dead for sure."
"This case was like taking the pulse of the revolution, but the verdict tells us that the revolution has been aborted," Kassem told The Associated Press by telephone. "This is a signal on which direction the revolution is heading."
While lawyers are moving to ask the prosecutor general to appeal the verdict, Egyptian activists took to Twitter to condemn the outcome, with some saying it was yet another setback for the pro-democracy movement and a bad omen for upcoming parliamentary elections.
On June 6, 2010, two plainclothes policemen dragged Said out of an Internet cafe in the northern port of Alexandria and beat him to death by smashing his head by marble stairs, according to witnesses.
Police and pro-government media outlets tried to portray him as a drug dealer who died after choking on a packet of drugs he swallowed as policemen approached.
The claim met with derision after photos of his badly beaten body and bloodied face were circulated widely.
More than a year later, an independent forensic committee found that the packet was forced into his mouth after his death.
It was only after a public outcry that prosecutors charged the two officers with illegal arrest and harsh treatment, although not with murder.
In June 2011, the court ordered an independent review of the forensic evidence used in the defense of the two policemen. At that time, Said's family and rights advocates were hopeful that more serious charges could be added to the indictment.
Said's sister, Zahra, considered the forensic review as a "new turn" in the case, adding that she believed there is evidence that "this is not a case of torture but a crime of premeditated murder."
The judge then imposed a media ban – a move that worried activists who noted that even under Mubarak, sensitive court cases were open to press coverage.
Many pro-democracy activists in Egypt are disappointed that demands they made during the uprising have not been met. Many believe the series of setbacks began when protesters left Tahrir Square, assured that the ruling military council, which took power after Mubarak, would steer the country toward democracy.
Activists say the council has moved too slowly and sometimes was reluctant to carry out much-needed reforms.
After vowing to transfer power quickly to a civilian elected government and president, the council stretched the transition period to at least two years, with no clear outline or vision. That has left many opposition forces in a dilemma between preparing for elections or pressuring the council to speed up reforms.
Trying up to 12,000 civilians in front of military tribunals known for harsh and swift verdicts added to the frustration toward the military council.
The military council has accused youth groups of having "a foreign agenda" and conspiring to drive a wedge between the army and the people.
In the past nine months, the council has tried to end street protests either by waging a media campaign against activists for "distorting public life" and harming the economy or by violently disrupting gatherings and putting its critics in jail.