CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian authorities released Saturday two dozen Islamist women and girls convicted for staging a street protest after an appeals court reduced their harsh penalties, including prison terms of 11 years, to suspended sentences.
The initial verdict handed down late last month caused an international and domestic outcry.
"This is God-given," Ola Alaa, an 18-year-old medical student who was initially sentenced to 11 years, told The Associated Press by telephone after reaching her home in the coastal city of Alexandria. "I think (the authorities) wanted to calm things down," she said.
The 21 defendants, who included seven teenagers, were held in custody for over a month.
The 14 women, mostly around the age of 20, were originally sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted in connection to an Oct. 31 protest in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The minors were ordered held until they turned 18, when their cases would have been re-evaluated. The group faced charges including "thuggery" and the use of weapons, the latter for allegedly having thrown rocks.
Defense lawyer al-Shimaa Saad said women received one-year suspended sentences while the minors' sentences were reduced to three-month probation.
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.
"They thought they would scare us" with this sentence, Alaa said. "But it backfired. More people went out to protest ... I myself will go down to protest starting tomorrow. We are steadfast."
Protesting again would violate the terms of release and could see the suspended sentences reinstated.
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 ruling today is still a conviction, a sentence they don't deserve," she said.
The women and girls, who belonged to a newly established group called the "7 a.m. 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. They were later released on bail pending trial, and their cameras were confiscated, she said.
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.
Associated Press reporter Tony G. Gabriel contributed to this report.