An Egyptian court has sentenced a police officer to 15 years in prison over the killing of a female protester during a peaceful demonstration in January — a death that shocked the country.
The Cairo Criminal Court ruled against 24-year-old police lieutenant Yassin Hatem Salah Eddin, charged with manslaughter over the death of 31-year-old activist Shaimaa al-Sabbagh. The ruling can be appealed.
The killing struck a nerve with many Egyptians and stoked anger over perceived brutality of the police. Since Egypt's first freely-elected president, Mohamed Morsi, was ousted in a 2013 coup by the ex-army chief and current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, there have been mass killings of protesters including 900 in a single day last August according to Human Rights Watch.
Al-Sabbagh was shot at a protest on January 24 that was being held to mark the the anniversary of the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak. Dozens more protesters were killed in clashes with police in subsequent days.
Video footage of the January incident showed al-Sabbagh collapsing in a colleague's arms with her head, chest and back soaked in blood after a masked policeman fired birdshot in her direction. A voice was heard in the videos, commanding: "Fire."
Authorities initially denied that police had any involvement in her death. Lawyers had repeatedly demanded that the manslaughter charge be changed to premeditated murder.
In February, VICE News spoke to Sayyid Abu el-Ela, the man pictured holding al-Sabbagh up after the fatal shot.
In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Ela remembered: "I didn't know what kind of injuries she had, and if they were dangerous or not… [but] she started bleeding from the nose and mouth and I knew they were dangerous."
Ela described asking a police officer for an ambulance, but said he was ignored.
Talat Fahmi, another protest participant, told VICE News that he was detained by police while trying to help her — eventually it emerged he was one of six that had been arrested as al-Sabbagh died.
Ela also told VICE News: "It was an honor to live beside [al-Sabbagh], the most important thing that happened to me in my life was to be with her in her last moment," he said. "We know that freedom is expensive, but now we ask ourselves if it is as expensive as Shaimaa's blood, and we are not sure about that."
The uproar over al-Sabbagh's death prompted President Sisi to urge an investigation. He suggested at the time that individual mistakes should not undermine public confidence in the police.
Salah Eddin addressed the court before the verdict was handed down on Thursday, denying responsibility for al-Sabbagh's killing and saying he had no gunshots in his weapon.
"We had no gunshots. We were there for security, not to kill anyone," he said. "This is our job."
Al-Sabbagh's family members, lawyers and friends welcomed the verdict, many clapping in approval inside the court room.
The verdict comes against a backdrop of a state-orchestrated campaign to silence dissent. An anti-protest law punishes demonstrations staged without police permits and courts dispense heavy sentences against both Islamists and secular-minded activists over charges mostly related to violence.
The campaign escalated following the military's ouster of Islamist leader Morsi in July 2013, after mass demonstrations accusing him of abuse of power.
A lawyer representing the slain woman said the ruling was fair. "The ruling achieves justice and retribution," Amir Salem said. "The soul of Shaimaa will can now rest in peace."
"The sentence against al-Sabbagh's killer would serve justice but past convictions of police have been reversed on appeal, meaning there has been zero accountability for killing protesters," Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement sent to VICE News. "Nor has there been any accountability for those in charge of Egypt's security forces, who are ultimately responsible for the widespread and systematic killings of protesters in Egypt over the past two years."
"Prosecuting a low-level police officer is important, but it does nothing to mask the government's relentless persecution of peaceful critics, including those who are witnesses to the government's crimes," Whitson added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.