CAIRO – An Egyptian court sentenced 21 people to death today on charges related to one of the world’s deadliest incidents of soccer violence, touching off an attempted jailbreak and a riot that killed another 16 in the Mediterranean port city that is home to most of the defendants.
The verdict follows deadly clashes between police and demonstrators Friday, the second anniversary of the uprising that overthrew longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. Such cycles of violence, often lasting for weeks and costing dozens of lives, have occurred regularly over the past two years.
Die-hard soccer fans from both teams, known as Ultras, hold the police at least partially responsible for the Port Said deaths and criticize Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi for doing little to reform the force. Al-Ahly Ultras in particular has been at the forefront of protests. But anger also is boiling in Port Said, where residents say they have been unfairly scapegoated.
Immediately after the verdict, two police were shot dead outside Port Said’s main prison when angry relatives tried to storm the facility to free the defendants. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, as well as live rounds, at the crowd outside the prison, killing six, security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Security officials said the military is being deployed to Port Said – the second such deployment in less than 24 hours. The army was widely used to keep order by top generals who took over after Mubarak, but the military has kept a much lower profile since Morsi was elected as president in June.
The military was also deployed overnight in the city of Suez after eight people died in clashes between security forces and protesters opposed to Morsi. Another protester was killed in Ismailiya, and security officials told the state new agency MENA that two policemen were killed in Friday’s protests, bringing the death toll on the second anniversary of Egypt’s uprising to 11.
Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid read out the death sentences related to the Feb. 1 riot in Port Said that killed 74 fans of the Cairo-based Al-Ahly team. Defendants’ lawyers said all those sentenced were fans of the Port Said team, Al-Masry. Executions in Egypt are usually carried out by hanging.
The judge today said in his statement read live on state TV that he would announce the verdict for the remaining 52 defendants on March 9.
Among those on trial are nine security officials, but none were handed sentences today, lawyers and security officials say.
Fans of Al-Ahly, whose stands were attacked by rival club Al-Masry in the Feb. 1 incident in Port Said, had promised more violence if the accused did not receive death sentences. In the days leading up to the verdict, Al-Ahly fans warned of bloodshed and “retribution”. Hundreds of Al-Ahly fans gathered outside the Cairo sports club in anticipation of the verdict, chanting against the police and the government.
Before the judge could read out the names of the 21, families erupted in screams of “Allahu Akbar!” – Arabic for God is great – with their hands in the air and waving pictures of the deceased. One man fainted while others hugged one another. The judge smacked the bench several times to try and contain reaction in the courtroom.
The judge is expected to make public his reasons for the death sentences March 9, when the remaining 52 defendants receive their sentences.
The violence began after the Port Said’s home team won the match, 3-1. Al-Masry fans stormed the pitch after the game ended, attacking Cairo’s Al-Ahly fans.
Authorities shut off the stadium lights, plunging it into darkness.
In the exit corridor, the fleeing crowd pressed against a chained gate until it broke open. Many were crushed under the crowd of people trying to flee.