A court in Egypt has sentenced three prominent activists who helped lead the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak to three years in prison each for a recent demonstration.
Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Muhammad Adel were found guilty of involvement in an unauthorized protest that took place in late November. The authorities also accused them of assaulting police, a charge they denied.
Their sentences include prison labor and fines of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (about $7,200) each.
Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency said the three activists chanted "down with the military regime" as the court delivered its ruling on December 22.
It is the first verdict against non-Islamist protesters since the overthrow by the military of democratically elected President Muhammad Morsi in July.
It is also the first conviction under a law approved by the government in November that requires protesters to seek permission days before any demonstration. Violators can receive a series of harsh penalties.
Rights groups have condemned the authorities for what they describe as a widening crackdown against secular demonstrators opposed to the military-backed government.
All three defendants were leading dissidents under Mubarak. But they also supported the military's overthrow of the Islamist-backed Morsi, whom they accused of betraying the ideals of the 2011 revolution.
Since Morsi’s ouster, the military has waged a sometimes bloody campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Hundreds of Islamists have been killed and thousands have been jailed.
Authorities say the new law on demonstrations is necessary to curb the unrest that has troubled Egypt for the past three years and led to a sharp economic decline.
Critics call it a draconian assault on basic democratic rights. They say it marks a return of Mubarak-era policies that rely on a "security solution" to political problems.
The three activists were prosecuted for a rally outside a Cairo court on November 30 that led to scuffles between protesters and security forces.
Defendant Maher is the founder of the April 6 youth movement, which played a key role in the revolt against Mubarak in early 2011. He was nominated that year for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Defense lawyer Waleed Abdel Raouf said the verdict was clearly aimed at discouraging activists from even considering staging protests.
The verdict against the activists comes with the government planning to hold a referendum on an amended constitution next month, and with activists preparing to mark the third anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak that began on January 25, 2011.
With reporting from AFP, Reuters and AP