Apr 21, 5:23 AM EDT

Court sentences ousted Egypt president to 20 years in prison


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AP Photo/Amr Nabil

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CAIRO (AP) -- An Egyptian criminal court on Tuesday sentenced ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to 20 years in prison over the killing of protesters in 2012, the first verdict to be issued against the country's first freely elected leader.

The ruling, which can be appealed, reflects the dramatic downfall of Morsi and the drastic challenges facing Egypt since its 2011 uprising that forced longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power.

Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group swiftly rose to power in elections after Mubarak's ouster, only to find themselves behind bars a year later when millions protested against them for abusing power and the military overthrew the government.

But as Mubarak and members of his government increasingly find themselves acquitted of criminal charges, Morsi and the Brotherhood are at the receiving end of heavy-handed sentences.

During Tuesday's hearing, Judge Ahmed Youssef issued his verdict as Morsi and other defendants in the case - mostly Muslim Brotherhood leaders - stood in a soundproof glass cage inside a makeshift courtroom at Egypt's national police academy. Seven of the accused were tried in absentia.

In addition to Morsi, 12 Brotherhood leaders and Islamist supporters, including Mohammed el-Beltagy and Essam el-Erian, also were sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Youssef dropped murder charges involved in the case and said the sentences were linked to the "show of force" and unlawful detention associated with the case.

The case stems from violence outside the presidential palace in December 2012. Morsi's supporters attacked opposition protesters, sparking clashes that killed at least 10 people.

During the hearing, Morsi and the rest of the defendants in white jumpsuits raised the four-finger sign symbolizing the sit-in at the Rabaah al-Adawiya mosque, where hundreds were killed when security forces violently dispersed the sprawling sit-in by Morsi's supporters on Aug. 14, 2013.

In past sessions, Morsi and most of the defendants turned their backs to the court when Youssef played several video recordings of the clashes outside the palace in 2012.

From his exile in Turkey's capital, Istanbul, top Muslim Brotherhood figure Amr Darrag called the ruling "a sad and terrible day in Egyptian history."

"They want to pass a life sentence for democracy in Egypt," Darrag said.

Under the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who as army chief overthrew Morsi, Brotherhood members and Islamists have faced mass trials that end with mass death sentences, sparking international condemnation.

Morsi himself faces three other trials on charges that vary from undermining national security by conspiring with foreign groups and orchestrating a prison break. Thousands of Brotherhood members are in jail facing a variety of charges, most linking them to violence that followed Morsi's 2013 overthrow.

Morsi is being held at a high security prison near the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. His incarceration there followed four months of detention at an undisclosed location.

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