By Maggie Michael
and Sarah El Deeb
CAIRO: Nearly two dozen Islamist women and girls, some as young as 15, were handed heavy prison sentences Wednesday for protesting in a court ruling that came a day after police beat and terrorized prominent female activists in a crackdown on secular demonstrators under a tough new anti-protest law.
The harshness of the sentences and the scenes a day earlier were new signs that the military-backed government is becoming bolder in silencing dissent, turning to abuses reminiscent of the Hosni Mubarak era. Authorities have been justifying tougher measures as needed to fight terrorism and bring stability — while they also appear to be exploiting divisions among secular democracy activists.
The crackdown is rearranging Egypt’s political map after months when authorities were focused on crippling the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist backers of ousted President Mohammed Morsi.
This week, security forces have moved against secular youth activists opposed to the military and police.
In a Mediterranean city of Alexandria courtroom, the 21 young female defendants flashed defiant smiles to the media, standing handcuffed in white head scarves and white prison uniforms in the defendants’ cage. They were convicted on charges related to holding an Oct. 31 protest in the city demanding Morsi’s reinstatement.
Among them were seven teenagers aged 15 and 16, who were sentenced to prison terms until they turn 18. The rest — most aged 18 to 22 — were sentenced to 11 years in prison. Six other Brotherhood members were sentenced to 15 years in prison for inciting the demonstrations.
“We thought they will get a month or something but we were shocked with the 11 years,” defense lawyer al-Shimaa Ibrahim Saad said.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, said the sentences are meant to be a “deterrent” for the group’s opposition to the military, vowing the verdict “will only increase the determination of the people to get their rights.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of secular youth activists protested Wednesday in downtown Cairo. At the center of the crisis is the law issued this week banning any protests or public political gatherings of more than 10 people without a prior police permit.