CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Tuesday convicted four police officers in the deaths of 37 detainees, most of them supporters of the ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who suffocated in a police truck in which they were packed for hours before police lobbed in tear gas.
It is the first trial and conviction of police officers in connection to a crackdown on Islamists since Morsi was ousted in July. But the verdict outraged lawyers and families of the victims who said the police should have been tried for murder instead of manslaughter, which is considered a misdemeanor. One of the officers received a 10-year prison sentence while three others got one-year suspended sentences.
"This can't be a ruling. This is an indirect acquittal," Mohammed Abdel-Maaboud, one of eight detainees who survived the Aug. 18 ordeal in the police truck.
The 45 detainees — rounded up in a sweep against a protest — were kept locked in the parked truck meant to hold 24 people for hours, until police fired tear gas into it, according to affidavit to court by an expert. Abdel-Maaboud described inmates slowly dying around him for nearly nine hours in the summer heat. The guards outside mocked them when they pleaded for water, he said.
"Imagine for nine hours, people were dying in a horrible fashion. I kept hearing the moaning of people beside me as they died from suffocation. Some yelled shoot us, it is better for us. Then a tear gas is fired in to finish off the rest," he said.
At the time, police said they fired tear gas into the truck when the detainees attacked a guard in an attempt to escape. But Osama el-Mahdi, a lawyer for some of the victims, said that argument did not come up in the trial.
The harrowing incident came days after security forces broke up two protest camps by Morsi supporters in Cairo in an assault that killed hundreds of protesters in the wake of Morsi's ouster by the military in July. Months of protests by Islamists ensued, and hundreds died in the subsequent violence.
No charges have been levied in connection with the dispersal of the protest camps or subsequent deaths. Authorities accuse Morsi's supporters of waging a campaign of violence to destabilize the military-backed government, while the group denies using violent tactics.
Thousands have also been detained in a sweep against Islamists— many of them are now put on trial on various charges, including protesting and inciting violence. Some protesters have received hefty sentences for holding rallies that often turned violent, including students from an Islamist university who got 17 years for rioting on campus.
Police spokesman Hany Abdel-Latif declined to comment on Tuesday's ruling. When asked about the families' reaction, and calls for senior officials to be put on trial, he said his force would respect court rulings and implement them.
"I am shocked," Gamal Siam, the father of one of the detainees who died in the vehicle, said of Tuesday's verdict. He said his son, 29-year old Sherif, was not a Morsi supporter but was swept up in the arrests.
"I feel injustice, repression and that I am second- or third-class citizen — and also I feel offense, that the blood of my son is cheap," he said. "It is a feeling that kills. This is a police, repressive state."
Abdel-Maaboud said the truck packed with detainees was parked in the courtyard of Abu Zaabal prison outside Cairo at around 7 a.m. and was left there until around 3 p.m. in the summer sun. In response to the detainees' pleas for water, the guards would just mockingly sprinkle in drops of water. The guards taunted the detainees, telling them, "Don't say that you are men. Put up with it," Abdel-Maaboud recounted.
Guards also told the detainees to insult Morsi as a condition to get water, el-Mahdi said. The detainees were shackled together by the hands inside the truck.
Siam said survivors told him that many of the detainees started to faint before noon. Some of them wringed their sweat-drenched clothes to wet their lips, he said.
According to investigations presented to court, el-Mahdi said, the guards told the detainees that they didn't have a key to the truck. After firing in the tear gas, guards tried to push open the truck's rear door but could not because of the bodies inside, though the eight survivors managed to squeeze out the cracked door, according to the documents. They finally had to open the side of the truck with a blow torch.
The prosecutors' office only agreed to refer the case to a misdemeanor court on charges of manslaughter and negligence, he said.
El-Mahdi said the judges refused his request to transfer the case to a criminal court for the officers to be tried on murder charges. El-Mahdi said he also requested that more senior police officials be charged in the case but was refused.
"On the surface of it, this is a verdict to calm public opinion. But on the other hand, it overlooks a more serious charge and more senior officials who are implicated," he said.
Prosecutors refused to inspect the bodies for hours after the death, el-Mahdi and Siam said— probably the reason why most of the images of the detainees later in Egyptian media showed blue and bloated bodies.
"I am constantly trying to shut the image of him dead from my mind. There is lack of humanity in this crime that is unimaginable," said Siam, a university professor. "They didn't just kill him. They killed us too. His mother is crying for seven months now. We miss him. Life has no taste."
Lawyer Mohammed Zarie, who heads the Organization for Reform of Criminal Laws, warned that such sentences may only fuel resentments and a violent backlash.
"Of course we should respect court rulings," he said, but "anyone who reads this, especially the families of the victims, would see there are no deterrent verdicts in this area, and that the state institutions don't punish its children."
"This would only fuel more violence and terrorism."