Monday, December 15, 2008
Twenty-two people have been convicted in connection with food riots which erupted in the Egyptian town of Mahalla el-Kubra in April.
Some protesters were jailed for up to five years on charges of looting, assaulting police officers and possession of firearms at the hearing in a special court in Egypt on Monday.
The verdicts came after rising food prices drove thousands of Egyptians onto the streets in protest last April, setting off some of the worst violence in the country since the 1970s.
Half of the sentences were made in absentia, as 11 protesters have eluded arrest. Another 27 defendants were acquitted.
Around 300 relatives and friends demonstrated outside the courtroom in the city Tanta, demanding the defendants be let free.
Al Jazeera's Amr El Kahky, reporting from outside the courtroom, said the verdicts came as a shock.
"There is absolute anger and disbelief from the defendants and their families, along with the lawyers as well," he said.
"When the judge started to read out the reasons behind the verdicts, [lawyers thought] he was reading a political communique to acquit them of any wrongdoing, such as plotting and masterminding the riots".
The protesters were found guilty of criminal, and not political acts, he said.
Protesters tore down a giant poster of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, during the riots and shouted anti-government slogans.
Police arrested more than 300 people, although most were later released without charge.
The government also sent ministers to Mahalla, promising higher salaries for public-sector industries.
Much of the unrest has since diminished. The government's statistics agency says food prices have fallen in recent months.
*Source: Al Jazeera and agencies