CAIRO — An Egyptian criminal court from the Mediterranean city of Port Said on Tuesday sentenced 11 people to death over a 2012 soccer riot that killed more than 70 people and injured hundreds in what was Egypt's worst soccer disaster to date and one of the world's deadliest.
The verdict, read by presiding judge Mohammed el-Said, came at the end of the retrial of 73 defendants in a case that sparked deadly riots in 2013 in Port Said, prompting then-President Mohammed Morsi to declare a state of emergency in the city.
The court also sentenced 40 defendants to up to 15 years in prison and acquitted the rest. The verdicts can be appealed.
The hearings in the case, including the sentencing on Tuesday, were held in Cairo, not in Port Said, for security reasons.
The earlier trial ended in March 2013, when 21 defendants were sentenced to death, while others received jail terms that ranged from one to 25 years in prison. Twenty-eight were acquitted. The rulings were appealed and a retrial was ordered by Egypt's Court of Cassation in February last year.
The February 2012 riot began at the end of a league match in Port Said between Cairo's Al-Ahly, Egypt's most successful club, and home side Al-Masry. The riot led to the temporary suspension of Egypt's top flight soccer league. The league later resumed, but with matches played in empty stadiums.
The Port Said riot scarred Egyptian soccer, with its consequences widely blamed for the slump of the national side. Seven-time African champion Egypt has failed to qualify for the African Cup of Nations since 2010, the year when it clinched its third successive continental title.
The first Egyptian Premier League game in which fans were allowed back into the stadiums was played in February this year, but that occasion was also marred by the death of 22 fans in a stampede outside the grounds. The stampede followed the use of tear gas by police to stop what authorities at the time said was an attempt by fans to storm the military-owned stadium in a suburb east of Cairo.
In the Feb. 2, 2012, Port Said incident, Al-Masry fans attacked Al-Ahly supporters with knives, clubs and rocks after the match. Witnesses and survivors described victims falling from the bleachers as they tried to escape. Hundreds of others fled into an exit passage, only to be crushed against a locked gate with their rivals attacking from behind.
At one point, the stadium lights went out, plunging it into darkness. The match's TV sportscaster explained that authorities shut them off to "calm the situation." The prosecution said in the indictment sheet that switching off the lights was meant to give the attackers a cover of darkness.
Among those sentenced on Tuesday were Port Said's police chief and another senior police officer, both receiving five-year jail sentences. Al-Masry's executive director Mohsen Shettah and a stadium official in charge of the lighting were also sentenced to five years in prison.
The prosecution claimed the police had facilitated the attack by not searching Al-Masry supporters on entering the stadium, thus allowing them to come inside the grounds armed with knives, clubs and homemade explosives. The police, it continued, also seated al-Masry supporters close to the area designated for the rival Al-Ahly fans. Police stood by and did nothing to stop the attackers, it added.
Most of the victims of the 2012 riot belonged to Al-Ahly's "Ultras," an association of hard-core fans who have long been at sharp odds with the nation's highly militarized police, taunting them with offensive slogans during matches and fighting them in street battles. Hard-core fans of other clubs also identify themselves by variations on the Ultras name.
Ultras members have been credited with playing a major role in the 18-day popular uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, as well as subsequent street clashes with police. They were among the chief defenders of Tahrir Square, the uprising's epicenter in central Cairo, when Mubarak loyalists charged protesters on Feb. 2, 2011, one of the deadliest days of the uprising.
Tuesday's verdict followed a court ruling last month that banned the Ultras belonging to Al-Ahly and other sports clubs over charges that the groups are involved in terrorism.
Judge el-Said on Tuesday said the various Ultras associations have been led astray by individuals with "ulterior" motives, filling their heads with ideas like sacrificing their lives for their clubs as a duty.