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Death sentences over Egypt football riot spark new protests

From Salma Abdelaziz, Ian Lee and Laura Smith-Spark, CNN
March 11, 2013 -- Updated 0111 GMT (0911 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Official: 2 people killed, 15 injured in Cairo amid clashes sparked by court verdicts
  • An Egyptian court upholds the death penalty against 21 defendants in soccer riot case
  • Lawyers for the 73 defendants can appeal the verdicts
  • Supporters of rival Cairo football club al-Ahly celebrate as the sentences are read out

Cairo (CNN) -- Two people were killed and at least 15 injured Saturday in Cairo, officials said, as Egyptians in two rival cities took to the streets to vent their anger over court verdicts in a controversial case involving deadly riots at a soccer game.

Health Ministry spokesman Ahmed Osman said two protesters had been killed in violence outside the Semiramis Intercontinental hotel in downtown Cairo.

Five others have been injured in the clashes by the hotel, he said.

Another 10 are suffering smoke inhalation after a fire gutted the three-story building housing the Egyptian Football Association in a wealthy Cairo neighborhood, as soccer fans looked on. Next door, an exclusive club for policemen was also ablaze.

Demonstrations, fires in Cairo

In Port Said, the other city with a stake in the court case, small fires burned in the harbor. The military has been deployed in the volatile northeastern city to try to avoid a repeat of past violent protests.

Saturday's disorder erupted after a Cairo court confirmed death sentences previously handed down to 21 defendants in the Port Said soccer riot case and sentenced more than 20 others to prison terms, state media said.

The rampage in February 2012 left 74 people dead and 1,000 injured, after the Port Said home team, al-Masry soccer club, defeated visiting Cairo team al-Ahly.

A majority of the victims in the stadium rampage -- where fans went at each other with rocks, chairs, knives and swords -- were Cairo fans.

Of those sentenced to prison, five people received life sentences and 10 others were given 15 years in prison, the state-run EgyNews agency reported.

Among those given a 15-year term were the leading policeman on trial, General Essam Samak, former chief of security in Port Said, and a second police official, Mohamed Saad, state media said. Seven other policemen were acquitted.

Other prison sentences were lesser, and the court cleared 28 people in total in the case, EgyNews said.

Lawyers for the 73 defendants, who also included al-Masry club staff, can file an appeal.

There was some initial confusion in Egyptian media over the final verdicts.

The sentences have prompted anger in both cities, with some protesters in Port Said believing they are too harsh and others in Cairo convinced they do not go far enough.

Hardcore fans

A statement on the Ahly club's official website backed the Cairo court but said the fight for justice wasn't over.

"The court's verdict was fair for fans of the Ahly team. We support the prosecutor general's decision to appeal the 28 acquittals and we'll continue supporting the families of the Port Said football victims," it said.

"We will not give up until justice is served to all their sons."

But the lighter punishment for policemen accused of standing by amid the stadium violence angered some.

Eyewitnesses at the Egyptian Football Association headquarters told CNN that Ultra Ahly fans outraged by the verdicts set the building ablaze as they marched towards Tahrir Square, the usual focal point for demonstrations in the capital.

The Ultras are hardcore soccer fans who have also become involved in political protests.

Earlier, around 1,000 Ahly supporters who were at the Cairo soccer club erupted in cheers and set off fireworks to celebrate, as the judges, sitting in the police academy in New Cairo, a suburb of the capital, gave their ruling.

Old resentments

In Port Said, near the Sinai Peninsula, black smoke rose into the sky as tires fixed to docks went up in flames. The tires serve as rubber bumpers to prevent damage to ships knocking against the piers. Without them, anchoring in port is more difficult.

Port Said demonstrators also protested against the nation's government and President Mohamed Morsy. Some complained that justice for Port Said was sacrificed to placate Cairo.

Their anger reflects a deeper resentment of the capital common in the port city. Many Port Said residents believe that too much of the tax money collected from ships passing through the port lands in Cairo, which does not return enough of the funds to their municipal coffers.

Port Said has been shaken by violent protests in recent days as the date for the verdict neared.

Deadly clashes erupted after the 21 death sentences were first handed down in January.

Port Said's tense relationship with Cairo dates back about 60 years.

Many residents of Port Said felt Egyptian security forces didn't adequately defend the city during the series of wars with Israel that began with the Jewish state's creation in 1948 and ended after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

Journalists Ian Lee and Adam Makary reported from Cairo, Nada Wassef from Port Said and CNN's Salma Abdelaziz from Atlanta. Laura Smith-Spark wrote in London, and Ben Brumfield wrote in Atlanta.

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