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Egypt court cuts sentences against Islamist women

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SARAH EL DEEB | December 7, 2013 11:59 AM EST | AP

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CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian appeals court reduced Saturday harsh prison sentences given to 14 young Islamist women for protesting in support of the country's ousted president, reducing them to one-year suspended sentences, a defense lawyer said.

The initial verdict handed down late last month caused an international and domestic outcry.

The lawyer, al-Shimaa Saad, said the women were released around sundown Saturday, after more than a month in custody.

The 14 women were originally sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted on charges related to an Oct. 31 protest in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

Human Rights Watch called the sentences "blatantly political" and said the court had violated the right to free trial, by failing to allow witnesses to testify in the women's defense, and providing little evidence for the charges they faced. Egyptian activists, including many critics of the Islamists, saw the sentences as evidence of the new military-backed government's intolerance for opposition.

The government says the crackdown is necessary as the three years of turmoil that followed Egypt's 2011 uprising have done crippling damage to the economy. It accuses Morsi supporters of seeking to destabilize the country. But few officials came forward to defend the sentences passed on the women.

Saad says the court also reduced the sentences of seven teenage defendants who were originally given prison terms until they turned 18. The appeals court gave the teenage girls three months probation. They were also released Saturday, Saad said.

"Thank God the girls will be going home. That is what we cared about," said Saad. "But the ruling today is still a conviction, a sentence they don't deserve."

The 14 women appeared in the cage in white headscarves and shirts, many of them holding roses— an apparent symbol of peacefulness. The minors sat on the benches among the lawyers. The court session was tense, with arguments breaking out between the lawyers and security forces in the room before the opening.

The families were not allowed to attend the session, while scuffles broke out outside the room between supporters and opponents of Morsi.

Saad said the lawyers will still appeal the decision before Egypt's highest appeal court, the Court of Cassation, asking that the convictions be overturned completely.

The women and girls, who belonged to a newly established group called the "7 am Movement", held a protest on Oct. 31 in support of Morsi in the coastal city of Alexandria. Police dispersed the protest and arrested the women and girls as well as one man, Human Rights Watch said. The one man was released. Six other men accused in the case were sentenced in absentia to 15 years.

"Putting aside the blatantly political nature of this prosecution, the authorities failed to meet even the most basic standards of evidence to prove these women and girls engaged in violence or thuggery," said Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch Sarah Leah Whitson in a statement issued Saturday.

The speedy sentences, coming less than a month after the women were detained, are part of a widening crackdown on Morsi supporters since he was toppled in a July 3 coup that followed demonstrations by millions calling on him to leave office.

The crackdown has recently widened to include other non-Islamist critics of the current authorities, and a new protest law was passed last month that tightly restricts public gatherings and increases penalties for violators. The 14 women were convicted under pre-existing laws.

"This prosecution fits into Egypt's new normal - clamping down on protests, and criminalizing dissent," Whitson said.

At least three prominent non-Islamist activists have been referred to trial in accordance with the new law on charges of taking part in an illegal protest and assaulting policemen. Their trial begins Sunday.

Also on Saturday, military prosecutors interrogated two journalists arrested a day earlier during a pro-Morsi protest in an eastern Cairo neighborhood, said Rawda Ahmed, a lawyer at the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

She said photographer Mohammed Abdel-Moneim from Al-Badil newspaper and Ahmed Hendawi from the Yqeen online news network are accused of vandalizing a military club by hurling stones at it.

Mohammed el-Shahed, a photographer with Al-Badil newspaper, said the two journalists were standing on the same side of the street as the security forces near a military club when they were arrested covering the protest.

When the protesters fired birdshot toward the security forces, a military officer came out of the club and grabbed Abdel-Moneim by his gasmask, said el-Shahed. He said he tried to free his colleague but weapons were raised in his face. Army soldiers started beating Abdel-Moneim and Hendawi was arrested while filming the incident, el-Shahed said.

Also Saturday, the judges presiding over the trial of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed el-Beltagy and Islamist preacher Safwat Hegazy stepped down, according to court officials. The two are accused of kidnapping and torturing two policemen in July.

The judges did not give a reason for stepping aside. A new court will refer the defendants to a new trial before a different panel of judges.

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Associated Press reporter Tony G. Gabriel contributed to this report.