Cairo: An Egyptian court sentenced 21 people to death on charges related to one of the world's deadliest incidents of soccer violence, which killed 74 mostly teenage fans of Egypt's most popular sports club in 2012. The verdict comes after a day of clashes between security forces and protesters opposed to Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi that left seven dead.
Fans of al-Ahly, whose stands were attacked by rival club Al-Masry in the February 1 incident in the Mediterranean city of Port Said, had promised more violence if the accused did not receive death sentences. Families of the victims shouted "Allahu Akbar!," or God is great, after the judge read out his verdict. One man fainted, while others wailed and cried in disbelief as they carried pictures of the young men killed in the soccer riot.
Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid 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. Many Ultras, or die-hard soccer fans, have taken a leading role in protests over the past two years. 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. 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. In the days leading up to the verdict, Al-Ahly fans warned of bloodshed and "retribution" if death sentences were not handed down. Hundreds of Al-Ahly fans gathered outside the Cairo sports club in anticipation of the verdict, chanting against the police and the government.
"The police are thugs!" yelled relatives of the deceased inside the courtroom before the judge took the bench. The violence began after the Port Said home team won the Feb. 1 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. The soccer fans, known as Ultras, are among Egypt's rowdiest and are proud of their hatred for the police, who were the backbone of Mubarak's authoritarian rule. The Ultras then directed their chants against the military rulers who took over after Mubarak's ouster in 2011 until Morsi came to power in elections last June. The Ultras from Egypt's 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.