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Dec 28, 10:03 AM EST

Egypt court reduces protester sentences to 2 years

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CAIRO (AP) -- An Egyptian appeals court on Sunday upheld the conviction of 23 activists, including a prominent rights defender, for staging an illegal protest, but reduced their sentences from three years to two, a defense lawyer said.

The judge did not explain his decision, according to defense lawyer Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, who said the reduction was not an act of clemency. Egyptian judges often do not explain their verdicts until a few days after they are issued.

"They are still convicted. This decision has no meaning at all," Abdel-Aziz said after the court decision was read out. The defendants will also get two years' probation after their release, but will not have to pay a previously imposed fine of $1,400 each. The decision can be appealed.

The secular activists were sentenced in October for staging a peaceful protest near the presidential palace to call on President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to abolish a law that severely restricts the right to stage protests.

The defendants include Sanaa Seif, who hails from a well-known activist family. Her brother Alaa Abdel-Fattah is also in prison pending a retrial after appealing a 15-year sentence for violating the protest law. Yara Sallam, a prominent women's rights activist, was also among the defendants whose sentences were reduced.

The London-based Amnesty International and Abdel-Aziz said the trial, which also included charges of sabotage, was based on little evidence. "This appears to be yet another show-trial based on scant and dubious evidence that is intended to be a clear warning to anyone who defies the Egyptian protest law," Amnesty said back in September.

It also criticized Sallam's detention, saying she was not even at the protest but was detained because of her human rights work.

Judges decided at the last minute to move Sunday's session from a courthouse in an east Cairo suburb to a more highly secured police facility that has been used as a courtroom.

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