CAIRO >> An Egyptian court sentenced 21 people to death Saturday 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 eight in the Mediterranean port city that is home to most of the defendants.
The verdict follows deadly clashes between police and demonstrators on 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 Saturday 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 Saturday, 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.
“This was necessary,” said Nour al-Sabah, whose 17 year-old son Ahmed Zakaria died in the melee. “Now I want to see the guys when they are executed with my own eyes, just as they saw the murder of my son.”
The verdict is not expected to calm tensions between the two rival teams. The judge is expected to make public his reasons for the death sentences March 9, when the remaining 52 defendants receive their sentences.
A Port Said resident and lawyer of one of the defendants given a death sentence said the verdict was nothing more than “a political decision to calm the public.”
“There is nothing to say these people did anything and we don’t understand what this verdict is based on,” Mohammed al-Daw told The Associated Press by telephone.
“Our situation in Port Said is very grave because kids were taken from their homes for wearing green T-shirts,” he said, referring to the Al-Masry team color.
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.
Survivors of the riot described a nightmarish scene in the stadium. Police stood by doing nothing, they said, as fans of Al-Masry attacked supporters of the top Cairo club stabbing them and throwing them off bleachers.
Al-Ahly survivors said supporters of Al-Masry carved the words “Port Said” into their bodies and undressed them while beating them with iron bars.
While there has long been bad blood between the two rival teams, many blamed police for failing to perform usual searches for weapons at the stadium.
Both Al-Ahly Ultras and Al-Masry Ultras widely believe that ex-members of the ousted regime of Hosni Mubarak helped instigate the attack, and that the police at the very least were responsible for gross negligence. It is not clear what kind of evidence, if any, was presented to the court to back up claims that the attack had been orchestrated by regime officials.
“The police are thugs!” yelled relatives of the deceased inside the courtroom before the judge took the bench.
As is customary in Egypt, the death sentences will be sent to the nation’s top religious authority, the Grand Mufti, for approval, though the court has final say on the matter.
All of the defendants — who were not present in the courtroom Saturday for security reasons — have the right to appeal the verdict.
The melee was the world’s deadliest soccer violence in 15 years.
The Ultras are proud of their hatred for the police, who were the backbone of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. They then then directed their chants against the military rulers who took over after Mubarak’s ouster.
Ultras from several Egyptian sports clubs were engaged in deadly clashes with police near the Interior Ministry headquarters in Cairo that killed 42 people less than three months before the soccer melee in Port Said.