Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 2 August 2014

'Ultra' fans charged in crackdown

Egyptian riot police clash with anti-government activists in Cairo (AP)

Egyptian prosecutors have charged 38 members of a die-hard football fan club with belonging to an illegal group and other offences, one of the first signs of a crackdown on the powerful sports organisations that have been at the forefront of the country's protest movement, lawyers said.

Football 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 long-standing 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 organised 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 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 around police stations and the detention facility in the town, amid concerns that supporters of the detainees may rally demanding their release.

Mr Ezzat said some members of the group had been protesting against 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. Mr 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 prosecutor officials as saying the arrested will be held for 15 days pending investigation.

Tensions between the Ultras and the police spiked on Saturday when a Cairo court issued verdicts related to soccer riots in February 2012, in which 74 people - mostly members of a Cairo Ultras club - were killed. Most of those convicted were from a rival 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 football fans wanted more police to be held accountable for the incident and other episodes of violence.

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