PORT SAID, Egypt — An Egyptian court issued split verdicts Saturday in the deadliest soccer riot in this country’s history, confirming death sentences for 21 fans accused of planning the violence, giving life terms to five others, and sentencing to long prison stretches two senior police commanders.
Twenty-eight of the defendants in the case, which stemmed from a Feb. 1, 2012 post-game stampede that left 74 people dead, were acquitted, including seven police officers. Seven others were sentenced to prison terms of between one and 15 years.
The deaths after the match between Cairo’s al Ahly club and Port Said’s al Masry indelibly altered soccer’s place in this nation. In the aftermath, the government canceled the remainder of last year’s season, and this year, it banned spectators from all soccer games.
Now, the conflict has become part of the country’s growing political instability, with the case becoming a focal point of anti-government violence.
On Saturday, plumes of smoke rose over both Port Said and Cairo as crowds of angry men used the court action as an excuse to confront police, often without success because many of the country’s security forces have gone on strike.
Police in Port Said, for example, had abandoned their posts on Friday, and crowds had to find new targets because the police stations had already been burned in previous protests. With no authorities to clash with, they set tires ablaze near the Suez Canal and protested downtown.
In Cairo, where police remained on duty, mobs set a police officers club on fire and burned the offices of the country’s soccer association across the street. At least one death was reported.
In both cities it fell to the Army to put out fires and try to restore order without firing a weapon.
Overall, the violence was less than in January, when a court first issued the 21 death sentences, all to al Masry fans for plotting the violence. At least 57 people died in the several days of violence that followed that verdict.
The mixed verdict on Saturday left both sides unhappy. Al Masry fans complained that the court was trying to pacify al Ahly fans, while al Ahly fans were disappointed that more police officers hadn’t been found guilty of collusion in the stampede.
“We don’t know whether to celebrate or cry,” said Ahmed Hany, 20, a diehard fan – known here in Egypt an "ultra" – of Port Said’s al Masry team.
As Judge Sobhi Abdel-Maguid read out the eight-minute ruling in packed and tense Cairo courtroom, fans around the nation reacted with horror and joy, depending on which team they supported.
As the judge first announced that he was upholding the death sentence “by hanging” of 21 fans, Hany, who was at the 2012 game, screamed in horror at the conviction of his friends. In Cairo, three hours away, al Ahly "ultras," gathered at their headquarters, cheered.
Minutes later as the judge announced the acquittal of most of the police officers named in the case, Hany screamed for joy, while in Cairo, the al Ahly fans reacted with bitterness.
“Of course, we are not satisfied,” shouted one, who refused to give his name. “Our revenge is with the police. They are the ones who failed to protect our brothers.”
One of the two police officers who were given 15-year sentences was Maj. Gen. Essam Samak, who was in charge of Port Said security on the day of the game. According to the summary of the case file, obtained by McClatchy, Samak failed to order fans searched before they entered the stadium, allowing them to bring in fireworks, swords and other weapons that eventually would be used against al Ahly fans. According to the file, another officer had told Samak that al Masry fans were plotting the assault.
The other sentenced to 15 years, Col. Mohammed Mohammed Saad, was the officer charged with holding the keys to gates leading out of the stadium. The gates had been locked and he could not be found to unlock them as the al Ahly fans tried to escape.
According to evidence file, Saad said he locked one of the gates on the orders of another officer just five minutes before the match ended. Later, he changed his story, saying he didn’t open any of the gates because he feared the crowds. He eventually handed the keys over to the prosecution, according to the case file.
The prosecution also charged that Samak decided to weld one of the gates shut the day before the game though it is unclear why. Fans would eventually die trying to open it.
In the file, one of the locked gates is referred to as the “deadly gate” as many of those killed were crushed in a desperate effort to get out.
The same file builds more speculative cases against the fans who were sentenced to death. According to a summary of the case file, fans who were alleged to have done something specific received the death sentence.
According to the case file, the fans planned several traps for the al Masry fans and even changed their clothes throughout the game so they would be harder to identify.
Two brothers were among those sentenced. One, Youssef Shaban, was sentenced to life and his brother, Mohammed, was sentenced to death.
According to the case file, the Shaban brothers were beating two people with a belt, including an al Ahly coach.
Despite the rulings, the case is far more from over. Both sides have said they plan to appeal.
Youssef reported from Port Said, McClatchy special correspondent Ismail, from Cairo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @nancyayoussef