CAIRO — An Egyptian court convicted 20 students from an Islamist university in Cairo on charges of rioting during a protest last year in support of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, sentencing most of them on Saturday to five years in prison, a judicial official said.
The official said 19 of the students — all from Cairo's Al-Azhar University — were sentenced to five years in prison each. One defendant got three years while another was acquitted.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media, said the 19 were also fined $2,860 each for property damages.
The verdicts came two days before Egypt's presidential election, a vote that former army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is widely expected to win. El-Sissy led the military when it ousted Morsi last July, after days of mass street protests against his rule.
Since then, students have been at the forefront of near-daily rallies denouncing Morsi's ouster and in support of his Muslim Brotherhood group. Al-Azhar campus in Cairo has seen some of the worst violence when the rallies descended into clashes. Several students have been killed, many were suspended for taking part in the protests and exams were interrupted several times.
Also Saturday, the Health Ministry said three people died in clashes the previous day between Brotherhood supporters and their opponents. It said 58 people were injured.
Egypt's Justice Minister Nayer Osman, meanwhile, defended the country's judiciary, saying judges can make mistakes but that it doesn't make the system "flawed."
He was responding to growing criticism and international concerns over a series of mass trials in recent months in Egypt, which have resulted in harsh sentences, including the death penalty handed down to hundreds of people, mostly Islamists.
"The judiciary has nothing to do with political circumstances or public emotions," Osman told reporters at a Cairo press conference.
In April, 683 alleged Morsi supporters were sentenced to death, including the Brotherhood's spiritual leader Mohammed Badie. And the month before, 529 Islamists were sentenced to death, but most of those were later commuted to life imprisonment, leaving 37 death sentences standing. The sentences can be appealed.
The verdicts drew an international outcry and raised questions over the fairness of the procedures.
Security officials and activists estimate that more than 16,000 have been arrested in Egypt in the 10 months since Morsi's ouster.
Most of those arrested are Brotherhood supporters, held on various charges, including holding illegal gatherings, using violence or belonging to an outlawed group. The government branded the Brotherhood a terrorist group late last year.
Among those detained are also non-Islamists, critics of the current government, who are mostly held for breaking a controversial protest law that restricts public gatherings without police permits.
Osman defended the detentions, saying all those jailed in Egypt are held behind bars pending investigations and trials against them.