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Egyptian court's suspension of jail terms for activists seen as intimidation

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By Nancy A. Youssef
McClatchy Foreign Staff
CAIRO - It was a seemingly lenient sentence for charges of burning a political party headquarters a year ago - one year in jail, suspended for the next three years - but upon hearing the verdict Sunday, supporters of the defendants were long faced and despondent. They said they interpreted the three-year suspension as an effort to prevent the activists from protesting the government in the near future.
"If they did what they claim, why a suspended sentence?" said Leila Soueif, the mother of two of the defendants. "Yes, it is suspended but this is a baseless case. There is no justice in our system anymore."
The primary defendants in Sunday's case, Alaa Abd el-Fattah and his sister Mona, had been leading figures in the 2011 protest movement that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. At one point, the government had even dropped the charges against them. But after the military retook control of the country on July 3, the charges were reinstated in what activists here say has been a concerted effort to eliminate political dissent.
The government crackdown has fallen hardest on the Muslim Brotherhood, whose leadership, including former President Mohammed Morsi, is in jail and facing charges. The organization is banned, and journalists face arrest for reporting on the Brotherhood's activities. Three Al-Jazeera English journalists who were arrested in late December on charges that they were leading a terrorist cell were questioned again on Sunday.
But the crackdown has also hit the so-called revolutionaries who were instrumental in toppling Mubarak and who also had backed the military putsch against Morsi last summer. Now even those who were never Brotherhood supporters face imprisonment on charges aimed to ensure the status quo. Many who remain free fear that they will be rounded up for talking about politics.
A year ago, the courts dropped charges of inciting violence against Alaa Abd el-Fattah after a domestic and international outcry. The verdict handed down Sunday was on less serious charges, and though the jail term was suspended, Alaa remained in custody, accused of participating in a protest, something the government declared illegal in November.
Mona Abd el-Fattah sat in a cage as the verdict was read, next to an Islamist who was facing unrelated charges. Friends said Mona Abd el-Fattah wasn't even at the headquarters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik when protesters stormed it and set it on fire.
Even as the verdict was read, activists attending the session said they assume Alaa will have to serve the one-year sentence once he is convicted of participating in a protest against the government.
Two other revolutionary figures, Ahmed Maher, the former head of the April 6th Youth Movement, and activist Ahmed Doma, were sentenced to three years for calling for protests against the government. They have an appeals hearing on Wednesday; on Jan. 28, he faces charges for escaping prison in 2011.
Scores of activists came to Cairo's High Court to support their colleagues but conceded their movement is struggling.
"I think it was a mistake to think the revolution could happen in 18 days," said Rasha Abdullah, a member of the advocacy group No to Military Trials, referring to the number of days protesters took to the streets before Mubarak resigned. "It takes years of stamina, determination and unfortunately it takes lives."
Mona and Alaa Abd el-Fattah come from one of Egypt's most active political opposition families. Their parents have been seeking change since former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was in power.
Their father, Saif Abdel Fattah, was in jail when Mona was born, a pattern his son repeated in 2011, when he was jailed when his son, Khalid, was born.
Earlier in the week, the father apologized at a news conference. "We wanted you to inherit a democratic society that preserves your rights, but we passed to you, my son, the prison cell that confined me and now you."

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