An appeals court in Egypt on Saturday released 21 Islamist women and girls convicted for staging a street protest after it reduced their harsh penalties, including prison terms of 11 years, to suspended sentences.
Fourteen women, in their early 20s and initially jailed for 11 years, were ordered freed after receiving one-year suspended sentences.
The remaining seven teenagers who were originally jailed until they turn 18 were released after they were given a three-month probation.
The initial verdict handed down late last month stirred wide international condemnation.
Human Rights Watch called the sentences “blatantly political” and said the court had violated the right to free trial, by failing to allow witnesses to testify in the women’s defense, and providing little evidence for the charges they faced, Associated Press reported.
Egyptian activists, including many critics of the Islamists, saw the sentences as evidence of the new military-backed government’s intolerance for opposition.
“Thank God the girls will be going home. That is what we cared about,” said lawyer al-Shimaa Saad, according to AP. “But the ruling today is still a conviction, a sentence they don’t deserve.”
All 21 were convicted of taking part in a violent protest demanding Islamist President Mursi’s reinstatement following his overthrow by the army in July.
Wearing handcuffs but holding red roses, the 14 women appeared on Saturday dressed in white prison garb, with “freedom” scrawled in black marker on the palms of their hands.
Judge Sharif Hafiz found the 14 women guilty of three counts relating to violence during the protest, but reduced their sentence to one year and suspended it.
Their lawyer Ahmed al-Hamrawy had urged the court to acquit them, arguing there was no evidence against them.
“Even in Mubarak’s era there were morals. Egypt’s women and girls were a red line and they weren’t placed on trial,” he told the court, referring to ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, Mursi’s predecessor.
He later welcomed the new sentences but said he would appeal them anyway to get acquittals for the defendants.
“The sentence is satisfying to a degree, and it has a humanitarian aspect... but we will appeal,” Hamrawy told AFP.
Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch’s director in Egypt, said the women and girls should not have been sentenced in the first place.
“They didn’t have any evidence tying the women to the commissioning of any violence,” she said.
During a recess before the appeals judge ruled, a defendant named Alma told AFP “this is an oppressive sentence.”
She said her daughter was among the seven juveniles sentenced, and explained that they had both been near the October 31 protest by chance when arrested.
Another defendant, Aya Adel, said: “I have the right to express my opinion -- this is a constitutional right, and we are currently political prisoners.”
Prosecutors charged that the women had fought with knives and thrown rocks during clashes that erupted at the protest in Egypt’s second city.