CAIRO, March 18, 2014 (AFP) – An Egyptian court sentenced a policeman to 10 years Tuesday for the deaths of 37 prisoners who suffocated on tear gas in one of the most brutal incidents in a crackdown on Islamists.
The court verdict, which also saw three other police officers handed one year suspended jail terms, was the first against policemen for violations during the crackdown on supporters of president Mohamed Morsi since his ouster by the army in July.
The prisoners were killed when tear gas was fired into a truck taking them from a police station to a prison near Cairo on August 18, at the peak of the crackdown.
The officer given 10 years was deputy head of the police station who oversaw the transfer. The four officers were convicted of manslaughter after the court accepted prosecution evidence that they had acted recklessly towards the victims.
The interior ministry said at the time of the incident that police fired tear gas when the inmates rioted as they were being transferred to Abu Zaabal prison in Cairo.
Tuesday’s verdict was handed down after the court heard testimony from seven wounded prisoners. It can be appealed.
The court also heard from a justice ministry expert who testified that the truck was designed to carry just 24 people, but was packed with 45 on the day of the tear-gassing.
The deaths came four days after security forces stormed two Cairo protest camps set up by Morsi’s supporters, triggering clashes that killed hundreds.
Egypt’s official National Council for Human Rights said in a report this week that both police and armed protesters were responsible for the deaths of more than 600 people in the August 14 violence.
Amnesty International says more than 1,400 people have been killed since Morsi’s overthrow, and thousands more arrested. It has repeatedly accused the security forces of using “excessive” force against Islamist protesters.
Morsi himself and top Muslim Brotherhood leaders have been put on trial on charges that could be punishable by death.
On Tuesday, police prevented the pro-Morsi Anti-Coup Alliance from holding a press conference, asking journalists to leave.
An AFP correspondent who went to attend found police deployed outside the venue. Militant attacks targeting police and troops have increased since Morsi’s ouster.
A new Islamist group claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks on policemen in the Nile Delta. Ansar al-Shariah, a name used by jihadist groups in other countries, had recently announced its formation in Egypt, before issuing another statement on Monday saying it targeted 28 “treasonous” security men.
More than 200 policemen and soldiers have been killed by militants based in the restive Sinai Peninsula since Morsi’s ouster.
The statement, posted on Facebook and circulated on militant Islamist forums, said the attacks in the Nile Delta over the past few months were to avenge abuses against “our sisters,” a possible reference to detained Islamist women. The statement’s authenticity could not be verified.