CAIRO — An Egyptian court convicted 20 students from an Islamist university in Cairo on charges of rioting during a protest last year in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, and sentenced most of them to five years in prison on Saturday, a judicial official said.
The verdicts came two days ahead of Egypt's presidential election, which former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is widely expected to win. El-Sissi led the military when it ousted Morsi last July, after days of mass street protests against his rule.
Egypt's military-backed authorities have cracked down heavily on Morsi's supporters. The campaign has seen more than 16,000 people jailed and facing trial, including the former president and leading members of his Muslim Brotherhood group.
Hundreds have been killed during violent dispersals of pro-Brotherhood protests while militant groups have stepped up attacks across Egypt against the police and military. Authorities have defended the crackdown, accusing the Brotherhood of advocating violence and seeking to destabilize the country, a charge the group denies.
On Friday, three Islamist protesters were killed in clashes with armed local residents during pro-Morsi rallies in Cairo and the oasis town of Fayoum, southwest of the Egyptian capital.
Authorities are expected to deploy an estimated 400,000 policemen and soldiers during the voting Monday and Tuesday to prevent outbreaks of violence.
Islamist students have been at the forefront of near-daily rallies denouncing Morsi's ouster. The Al-Azhar University campus in Cairo has seen some of the worst violence when rallies descended into clashes with police. Several students were killed, many were suspended for taking part in the protests and exams were interrupted several times.
In Saturday's ruling, 19 Al-Azhar students were sentenced to five years in prison each. One defendant got three years while another was acquitted, a judicial official said. The 19 were also fined $2,860 each for property damages, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media.
The crackdown has recently expanded to include non-Islamist government critics, who were among the most prominent icons of the country's 2011 uprising against longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, and who also opposed Morsi.
The government has used a protest law passed last year that bans rallies without prior police permission, imposing heavy sentences and fine on violators.
On Saturday, hundreds marched through downtown Cairo chanting against el-Sissi and the military, and demanding the protest law be scrapped.
"The country is turning into a big prison," said Rasha Azab, one of the protesters.
The marchers ripped off a campaign poster of el-Sissi and chanted: "The people want to bring down the regime" — a slogan that first appeared during the revolt against Mubarak.
Angry Cairo residents broke up the march, pelting the protesters with glass bottles. At least three protesters were detained, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Meanwhile, Justice Minister Nayer Osman defended the country's judiciary, saying judges can make mistakes but that it doesn't make the system "flawed."
He was responding to growing criticism and international concerns over a series of mass trials in recent months in Egypt, which have resulted in harsh sentences, including the death penalty handed down to hundreds of people, mostly Islamists.
The verdicts drew an international outcry and raised questions over the fairness of the procedures.
In the restive northern Sinai, security officials said more than a dozen gunmen chased and besieged a leading member of the al-Qaida-inspired militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, shooting him to death in his car in a village south of the town of Sheik Zuwayed. The officials said the killing of Salamah Abu-Dan appeared to be part of a revenge spree by local tribesmen whose relatives had been targeted by the militants on suspicion they cooperated with the military and police in their crackdown on terrorist groups.
Abu-Dan was suspected of playing a leading role in the killing of 16 soldiers in a brazen attack in 2012, weeks after Morsi took office.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, which has been blamed for some of the bloodiest attacks in Egypt in recent years, has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis first arose in Sinai, where for years militant groups largely made of up local Bedouin had carried out attacks, lobbing rockets into neighboring Israel and opening fire on soldiers and police officers. Attacks escalated after the 2011 fall of Mubarak, but increased dramatically after Morsi's overthrow at the hands of the military.
Associated Press writer Ashraf Sweilam contributed to this report from el-Arish, Egypt