21 sentenced to death over Port Said Stadium disaster
An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced 21 people to death after convicting them of involvement in killing 74 football fans in the country’s worst sports tragedy.
The chief judge Sobhi Abdul Hamid was interrupted several times by relatives of the victims who gathered inside a makeshift courtroom at the Police Academy near Cairo.
“Please, please,” shouted the judge as he stomped his hand on the bench in front of him while reading out names of the convicts.
He said that the documents of the 21 accused — out of a total of 73 — would be referred to the country’s Grand Mufti (top cleric) for endorsement, which is a routine procedure in Egypt in death sentencing.
“The final ruling will be announced on March 9 and all defendants shall be kept in prison until then,” said Abdul Hamid at the brief session before dashing out from the courtroom amid heavy security.
Upon hearing the verdict, families of the dead erupted into jubilation. The ruling proved so joyous for some of them that they burst into tears. Others fainted.
Seventy-three suspects, including nine policemen, were arrested and put on trial on charges ranging from negligence of duty to involvement in the killings.
Only the nine accused policemen appeared before the court. The 64 other defendants were kept inside a prison in Port Said over fears that Cairo-based extremist football fans, known as the ultras, would attack them.
Stunned by the verdict, thousands of people in Port Said, north east of Cairo, took to the streets in rage, throwing stones at security forces.
Many local people encircled the prison where the defendants are locked, attempting to free them.
Two policemen were shot dead by unknown gunmen outside the prison, said the Interior Ministry.
Other protesters besieged the Port Said Investment Zone and barred employees from entering the area that houses 28 factories, said witnesses.
In sharp contrast, the verdict was greeted with cheers and fireworks by thousands of Al Ahly supporters who had congregated outside the Cairo-based team’s building since the early hours of the day.
The hardcore fans, mostly youngsters, last week launched in Cairo what they called “start-of-anger protests”, warning that they would avenge the Port Said deaths if the court did not deliver “fair retribution.”
Thousands of the ultras surrounded the Egyptian Stock Exchange building in Cairo on Wednesday before blocking the city’s Underground service and main bridge for hours.
The ruling will most likely clear the way for the resumption of the domestic football competitions suspended in the aftermath of the Port Said mayhem.
Sports authorities have recently said the new season will kick off on February 2 after several postponements.
The verdict comes one day after at least nine people were killed in clashes between police and opponents of President Mohammad Mursi across the country.
“This ruling comes to rejoice Egyptians’ hearts,” said Essam Al Erian, a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood from which Mursi hails.
He added in a tweet that the verdict marks the start of achieving justice for hundreds of people killed during and after a revolt that toppled former strongman Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.
Mursi, Egypt’s first elected civilian president has been frequently criticized for not keeping a promise to bring to justice suspects in killing peaceful protesters.
Most policemen and ex-officials suspected of involvement in the protester deaths have been acquitted for lack of evidence.