CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court acquitted the former interior minister under longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak of charges of corruption and money laundering Thursday, a judicial official said.
The verdict in the retrial of Habib el-Adly lifted a 12-year jail term and 15 million Egyptian pound ($2.5 million) fine issued by a court in May 2011. Al-Adly still faces other retrials, including one on charges of killing protesters during the 2011 popular uprising that toppled Mubarak, as well as another corruption-related case.
The verdict acquitting al-Adly comes one day after a prominent activist of the 2011 revolt was sentenced to 15 years in jail after being convicted of organizing an unauthorized protest and assaulting a policeman. The sentence against Alaa Abdel-Fattah and 24 others drew criticism from international and local human rights groups.
It was the first conviction of a prominent activist since former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took office as president on Sunday. A joint statement Thursday by 16 Egyptian human rights associations condemned the conviction and sentencing of Abdel-Fattah and other defendants, saying it was unconstitutional and disregarded their right to a fair trial.
It said the verdict "further downgrades the status of human rights in Egypt." "The ruling yesterday is but another example of the government's continued disregard for the protection of constitutional guarantees of freedom of assembly and the right to a fair trial, as well as Egypt's international obligations."
The U.S. State Department said Thursday it was "deeply troubled by the harsh prison sentence" issued against the 25 activists, saying it had come after "very irregular court proceedings." "The implementation of Egypt's restrictive demonstrations law has led to a sharp increase in arrests, detentions and charges against opposition figures, human rights activists and peaceful demonstrators, and verdicts based on these charges, all of which send a chilling message to the civil society at large," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington on Thursday.
Prosecutors accused Abdel-Fattah of organizing an illegal demonstration and illegal possession of an object that could be used as a weapon. He and 24 other defendants are accused of using force against police, blocking traffic and posing a threat to public safety and order.
All were tried in absentia, meaning that there will be an automatic retrial. The statement from the rights groups said the defendants were standing outside the courtroom while the judge sentenced them in absentia. It said lawyers did not have a chance to call witnesses or examine evidence presented by the prosecution.
Abdel-Fattah and at least two other defendants were arrested after the proceedings. The verdict was the latest blow to liberal activists who took part in the 2011 revolt against Mubarak, and came amid a sweeping crackdown on dissent.
In the 11 months since the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, hundreds of his supporters have been killed and at least 16,000 have been detained. Other secular activists are also facing trial or serving sentences on charges of breaching the controversial protest law, which prohibits demonstrations without police notification and approval.