Egyptian prosecutors have charged 38 members of a die-hard soccer fan club with belonging to an illegal group and other offenses, one of the first signs of a crackdown on the powerful sports organizations that have been at the forefront of the country's protest movement, lawyers said Thursday.
President Mohammed Morsi meanwhile reached out to the city of Port Said, plunged into unrest by recent court verdicts related to a 2012 soccer riot. He promised to "preserve the rights of the people" and discover the "real criminal" behind violence in the Mediterranean port.
Soccer fans, known as Ultras, became a major political force during the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and the subsequent tumultuous transition. They are known for their longstanding animosity with the police.
The charge of belonging to an illegal group appears to be an attempt to pressure the powerful Ultras network, one of the most organized movements in Egypt after the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. But a crackdown could also backfire, as Ultras are some of the country's most active protesters and regularly clash with police.
Ahmed Ezzat, a rights lawyer who is looking into the case, said the 38 members of the Ultras Devils club were arrested Wednesday during a protest in the Nile Delta city of Shebeen al-Kom. They were also charged with attempting to set fire to a provincial court house and insulting police officers.
He said security has already been beefed up in the town amid concerns that supporters of the detainees may rally demanding their release.
Ezzat said some members of the group had been protesting the arrest of one of their members, Mohammed Gamal Helal, who is charged with attempting to overthrow the government. He said others were picked up at random. Ezzat said at least 15 in the group are minors.
Protests are unusual in Shebeen al-Kom, the capital of Menoufia province — a region known for its support of Mubarak-era officials but not otherwise a hub of political activity.
Egypt's state news agency quoted prosecutorial officials as saying the arrested will be held for 15 days pending investigation.
Tensions between the Ultras and the police spiked Saturday when a Cairo court issued verdicts related to the Port Said soccer riot in February 2012, in which 74 people — mostly members of a Cairo Ultras club — were killed. Most of those convicted were from a rival Port Said sports club.
Two police officers received 15 years for gross negligence and failure to stop the killings, in a rare incident of security officials being held responsible for deaths. But the soccer fans wanted more police to be held accountable for the incident and other episodes of violence. Seven other police were acquitted, and when the verdict was announced suspected Ultras set fire to a police club and a soccer federation in Cairo.
Ezzat denied that the Menoufia protesters set the court building on fire, saying that a flare — commonly used by Ultras at rallies — hit the building. He said the detainees reported being beaten.
The charge of belonging to an illegal group was frequently used against the Brotherhood when Mubarak was in power. The group was outlawed for decades yet unofficially tolerated.
In his short televised address to Port Said residents, Morsi promised a full investigation into recent violence that claimed the lives of scores protesters and residents. It was triggered last month by an earlier round of verdicts in which 21 Port Said residents were sentenced to death.
The weeks since have seen heavy clashes between protesters and police, ending with military stepping in and taking charge of the city security.
"We feel sorry to see a drop of blood dripping from the body of any of our sons," Morsi said. "I promise you that when investigation is over, all rights of families of the martyrs will be preserved," he said.
"The truth will come out and you will know the real criminal," he said.
Residents blame the police's excessive use of force for the killings. They say that Morsi gave police the green light to crack down on their protests.
Separately, a pan-African rights commission has ruled that the Egyptian government must reopen an investigation into the sexual assault of women protesters in 2005 during the height of political opposition to the Mubarak regime —a rare case in which an Egyptian human rights case has been taken to an international forum.
The African Commission on Human and People's Rights said that the Egyptian government must restart the case within 180 days and compensate the four victims who complained to the commission after they exhausted legal avenues at home. They were part of a group of Cairo demonstrators attacked by men in civilian clothes who appeared to be operating alongside the police and officials, with women singled out.
State authorities have said repeatedly that there was not enough evidence to prosecute officials or agents operating with the police.
Egyptian rights groups sought the opinion of the quasi-judicial body tasked with reviewing human rights among members of the African Union. Hossam Bahgat of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the groups that presented the case to the commission, said the decision "sends a clear message that there are other avenues for victims of human rights abuses who are confronted by a wall of impunity granted by the regime's law enforcement and prosecuting officials."
Despite having occurred eight years ago, the decision "has everything to do with today's Egypt," said Bahgat. "In fact, there has been an increase in sexual assaults on protesters in the past few months. And impunity for the police is more entrenched."
Bahgat said his group is taking another notorious case to the commission — intrusive "virginity tests" performed on over a dozen women protesters during the reign of the military council that replaced Mubarak. A military officer was acquitted in the case tried before a military tribunal.