CAIRO — Hundreds of Egyptians attacked a courtroom in Cairo on Monday, scuffled with security guards, and blocked a major highway for hours after the court ordered the release of 10 policemen charged with killing protesters during the country's uprising.
The unrest added to tensions already running high in Egypt over the ruling military council's failure to hold accountable security forces involved in killing protesters during the uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Nearly five months later, only one policeman has been convicted in the deaths of more than 846 people killed in a government crackdown on protesters. He was tried in absentia.
In Monday's court proceedings, guards had to separate between the relatives of the victims and the families of the defendants even before the decision was read. In his initial statement, the judge seemed to suggest he would impose harsh sentences, saying that "the blood of those killed will not be spilled in vain," according to the Egyptian news agency MENA.
However, he then ordered the release of the defendants, setting off a riot. The victims' families scuffled with the guards and tried to rush toward the defendants who were whisked out of the courtroom. A number of famiy members of the slain protesters tried to storm the judge's office in the courthouse, but were blocked by soldiers guarding the building.
After the riots broke out, Egypt's Prosecutor-General Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid ordered the court's decision overturned in a clear attempt to defuse anger. However, a lawyer for the victims' families said that such a decision is "illegal" because the prosecutor general has no authority over the court.
"They are trying to deceive the people to pacify them," said the lawyer Amin Ramez. "The policemen are now at army headquarters seeking protection. If people saw them, they would tear them apart," Ramez added.
Ali el-Ganadi, a father of one of the victims, said he received a promise from the prosecutor-general to enforce the annulment of the court's order and bring the officers back to jail.
Relatives of slain protesters, who were involved in the unrest, cut traffic for at least six hours on the highway from Cairo to the city of Suez, leaving hundreds of cars lined up. The court case involved protesters killed in Suez.
Ramez spoke to The Associated Press by phone from the Cairo-Suez road, about 60 miles outside of Cairo. He said that truck drivers and Suez residents poured in and joined the protesters. Military officers negotiated with the protesters.
Later, a couple hours after nightfall, El-Ganadi, the spokesman for Suez victims' families, said the protesters were opening the road to Suez.
After clearing the highway, protesters moved to inside Suez, according to one of the protesters Ahmed Khafagi. He said traffic has been halted inside two main squares in the city and thousands of people are holding protests and chanting slogans, including "Down with the military junta."
"People are boiling," activist Ahmed Abdel Gawad told AP from Suez.
The policemen were charged with killing 17 people and injuring more than 350 in the city of Suez during the 18-day uprising that ended on Feb. 11. The court released seven of them on bail and postponed their trials to Sept. 14. Three are tried in absentia.
Suez was a flashpoint of violence during the uprising, with many deadly confrontations between tens of thousands of protesters and security forces. Footage posted on YouTube showed policemen at the top of a police station in Suez main square opening fire on protesters during the uprising.
Ramez said that the court over the past four sessions has rejected demands by families' lawyers to add 41 other policemen to the case.
"We provided them with footage and visual evidence that show those policemen holding guns and automatic weapons and hunting down the protesters as if they were hunting birds," he said. "But the judge didn't summon them."
"The spark of the revolution came from Suez and the second revolution will also come out of Suez," Ramez said.
The release of the policemen looked likely to fuel plans for a one-million-man rally on July 8 to push for fair trials of former regime members including top security officials suspected of giving the orders to shoot protesters during the uprising.
Mahmoud Ibrahim of April 6 group, one of the youth groups that led the uprising in Suez, said that Suez residents are planning to turn out in force for the July 8 demonstration.
The cith of Suez is located at the northern tip of strategic Suez Canal which links the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. The canal is a vital source of foreign currency.
In Cairo, a security official said that anti-riot police fired tear gas to disperse dozens of people around a police station in the center of the city. The reason for the tensions there could not immediately be confirmed.