CAIRO — An Egyptian court sentenced 230 people, including one of the leading activists behind the country's 2011 uprising, to life in prison after finding them guilty on Wednesday of taking part in clashes between protesters and security forces.
All were tried in absentia except Ahmed Douma, a secular activist who is already serving a three-year-sentence for breaking a draconian law regulating protests. He is also serving a three-year sentence issued by the same judge for contempt of court. Thirty other people, all minors, were sentenced to 10 years in prison. Wednesday's ruling can be appealed.
It is the heaviest sentence yet against the secular activists who spearheaded the mass protests four years ago that forced longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak to step down.
The judge in the case, Mohammed Nagi Shehata, has courted controversy in the past by sentencing three Al-Jazeera journalists to at least seven years in jail last year and approving a mass death sentence against Islamists last month in connection to the killing of more than a dozen policemen.
"The harshness of the verdict is not a surprise to us, as the judge is driven by personal and political motives that shed light on the degree of impartiality of the Egyptian judiciary," said Douma's lawyer Mohammed Abdel-Aziz. "All talk about the independence of the judiciary is baseless."
Abdel-Aziz and the rest of Douma's defense team boycotted sessions after accusing Shehata of "terrorizing" them and not responding to any of their demands.
The case is connected to clashes in central Cairo in December 2011, during which a fire gutted parts of a library housing rare manuscripts and books.
The nearly weeklong clashes that left some 40 dead erupted after young activists took to the streets to protest the post-Mubarak political transition overseen by the military. The violence also laid bare the deep divisions between secular and Islamist activists, who had briefly united to topple Mubarak.
The schism eventually paved the way for the military's return to power amid massive protests against Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in 2013. After the military toppled Morsi, authorities launched a wide-ranging crackdown on dissent, killing hundreds of people in street clashes and jailing thousands, mainly Islamists but also some of the leading secular activists from 2011.
Egypt's courts are now swamped with the trials of thousands of protesters and government opponents. Judges have approved harsh and wide-ranging sentences against critics of the government while overturning earlier verdicts against Mubarak, his sons and senior security officials over the killing of protesters and corruption.
The judge, Shehata, gained international notoriety for sentencing three Al-Jazeera English journalists to prison after convicting them in June on charges linked to aiding the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government declared a terrorist organization following Morsi's ouster. One of the three, who has Australian citizenship, was released and deported by presidential order on Sunday.
Earlier this week, Shehata sentenced 183 alleged Morsi supporters to death over the killing of 15 police in a grisly attack on a station in 2013, which unfolded as security forces violently cleared Cairo protest camps, killing hundreds of Islamist demonstrators.
Last year, Egypt's powerful lawyers union criticized Shehata for "disparaging" and "terrorizing" Douma's defense team after he referred five of the team's six lawyers to prosecutors for investigation.
Shehata accused them on various occasions of disrespecting him. The defense team has subsequently withdrawn from the case and the union backed their decision, instructing all members to boycott Shehata's court.
"The judge has a clear political stance where he perceives the youth who led the uprising as a bunch of crooks and police as victims," said Abdel-Aziz.