Security officials said that while Abdel-Fattah was convicted and sentenced in absentia, he did turn up at the Cairo courtroom later on Wednesday and was detained by police. The absentia sentencing means that he now faces an automatic retrial, although the conviction stands in the meantime.
A human rights lawyer and family members said that the judge opened the proceedings earlier than scheduled and that Abdel-Fattah was kept waiting outside the courthouse, at a police academy south of Cairo, as he sought permission from the judge to enter the heavily guarded complex.
Abdel-Fattah was accused of inciting an “unauthorized” demonstration on Nov. 26. Protesters were angry about a clause in the draft of a new constitution that allows military trials for civilians. The constitution was later adopted by referendum.
Mona Seif, Abdel-Fattah’s sister and one of the organizers of the Nov. 26 protest, said her brother attended the demonstration but denied he had organized it.
The demonstration was broken up by police on the grounds that organizers had no permit. Female participants, including Seif, were snatched by police and thrown into a van before being dumped in the middle of the desert that night.
Two other leading activists from the 2011 uprising, Ahmed Maher and Ahmed Doumah, are serving three-year sentences for their alleged part in the November protest.
“The verdicts are meant to exact revenge and send a message of intimidation to whoever dares to speak up against injustice. But the result will be more anger, not fear,” said prominent lawyer and rights activist Gamal Eid.
Prosecutors accused Abdel-Fattah of organizing an illegal demonstration and illegal possession of an object that could be used as a weapon. He and 24 other defendants are accused of using force to take a policeman’s two-way radio, wounding him in the process, blocking traffic and posing a threat to public safety and order.
The 24 were also convicted and sentenced to 15 years in jail. At least two of them were arrested with Abdel-Fattah.
El-Sissi has said that he intends to uphold the protest law and that freedom of speech will have to take a back seat to restoring security and reviving the nation’s ailing economy.