Egypt's top court upholds 10 death sentences over football violence

The court also upheld convictions of 22 suspects who received up to 10 years imprisonment over the rioting in 2012 that killed more than 20 fans

An Egyptian woman holds a portrait of a family member and a victim of the Port Said massacre outside the Court of Cassation following the court's ruling in Cairo, on February 20, 2017, where it upheld death sentences against 10 people convicted over the 2012 rioting that claimed 74 lives. Mohamde El Shahed/AFP
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CAIRO // Egypt’s highest appeals court on Monday upheld the death sentences against 10 people convicted over a football riot that killed over 70 fans in 2012, in one of the world’s deadliest football disasters.

The verdict by the court of cassation is final. Defendants were charged with murder, along with other charges.

The court also upheld convictions of 22 suspects who received up to 10 years imprisonment over the rioting. A total of 11 defendants were sentenced to death but one remains at large and was tried in absentia.

Football matches are often a flashpoint for violence in Egypt.

The rioting erupted on February 2012, at the end of a league match in the Mediterranean city of Port Said between longtime rivals: Cairo’s Al Ahly, Egypt’s most successful club, and home side Al Masry. Witnesses said the rioting broke out after Cairo fans unfurled banners insulting the local team, which had won the match 3-1.

In a shocking and unexpected turn, Al Masry fans rushed to attack Al Ahly supporters with knives, clubs and rocks. 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 when their rivals attacked from behind.

The riot led to the suspension of Egypt’s top football league for over a year. The league later resumed, but with matches played in empty stadiums.

The first Egyptian Premier League game in which fans were allowed back into the stadiums was played in February 2015, 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 Port Said disaster, most of the victims belonged to Al Ahly’s “Ultras Ahlawy” — an association of hardcore fans now banned by authorities. In 2015, an Egyptian court ruled that the Ultras were a terrorist organisation.

Members of the Ultras have long been at odds with the nation’s highly militarised police, taunting them with offensive slogans during matches and fighting them in street battles. Hardcore fans of other clubs also identify themselves by going under variations of the Ultras’ name. During the 2011 uprising that toppled autocratic president Hosni Mubarak, the Ultras often provided muscle at street rallies, directing protesters, leading chants and standing first in the line of fire as riot police unleashed tear gas.

Earlier this month, Egyptian police detained more than 100 Al Ahly fans over a period of two days on suspicion they had planned to stage a protest on the anniversary of the Port Said rioting. The Ultras subsequently cancelled a planned commemoration.

Public gatherings without a permit are banned under Egypt’s draconian antiterrorism laws.

* Associated Press and Reuters