CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court convicted four police officers on Tuesday for the killings last summer of 37 Islamist detainees, most of them supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, and sentenced one of the officers to 10 years in prison.
The three other officers got suspended one-year terms in a misdemeanor court. All were convicted on manslaughter and negligence charges.
The lawyer and families of the victims denounced the sentences as too light, arguing that the policemen should have been tried for murder.
The verdict was the outcome in the only trial against officials accused in the killings of supporters of Egypt's ousted president.
The 37 detainees died while being transported in a prison truck on Aug. 18, reportedly suffocating to death after tear gas was fired into the vehicle. Authorities first said the detainees were trying to escape and attack the guards.
The gruesome incident drew condemnation from rights groups and the international community. It came just days after Egyptian troops violently broke up two sit-ins in Cairo by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group and other Islamist supporters who had been protesting for weeks against his ouster in July at the hands of the military following mass protests against his rule.
Hundreds died in the raid on the two Cairo protest camps and in violence that engulfed Egypt in the subsequent days. No charges have been levied in connection with the dispersal.
According to a Cairo court official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to media, the officer sentenced to 10 years is a deputy chief of a police station while the others are junior officers.
Mohammed Abdel-Maaboud, one of the eight surviving detainees who was locked up in the truck for nearly nine hours, dismissed the ruling as "a farce."
"How can someone who killed 37 people get only 10 years for negligence and manslaughter," Abdel-Maaboud said from his hometown in the Delta province of Sharqia.
"This can't be a ruling. This is an indirect acquittal," he told The Associated Press.
A lawyer of the victims, Osama el-Mahdi, said the prosecutor had only referred the case to a misdemeanor court — which cannot hand down life sentences or the death penalty.
El-Mahdi said the judges had declined to accept his request to transfer the case to a criminal court where he asked for the police officers to be tried for murder. El-Mahdi added that he also wanted to include more senior police officials in the case.
"On the surface of it, this is a verdict to calm public opinion. But on the other hand, it overlooks a more serious charge and more senior officials who are implicated," he said.
On that fatal August day, the 37 detainees were being transferred from a police station where they had been held to the Abu Zaabal prison on the outskirts of Cairo. The men, most of them Morsi's supporters, reportedly suffocated to death and the police fired tear gas into the truck. Authorities at first said the detainees tried to escape and attacked police officers guarding them.
But el-Mahdi said those details were not mentioned during the trial, which started in October.