CAIRO, Dec 22 (Reuters) - Three leading Egyptian activists were sentenced to three years in prison each on Sunday in a case brought over their role in recent protests, escalating a crackdown on dissent by the army-backed government.
Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel are symbols of the protest movement that ignited the historic 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. Each one was also fined 50,000 Egyptian pounds ($7,200) by the court.
As the verdict was read, the courtroom erupted in chants of: "Down, down with military rule! We are in a state, not in a military camp!" The case stems from protests called in defiance of a law passed by the army-backed government in November that severely restricts the right to assembly.
Activists say the army-backed authorities, already pressing a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood movement of former President Mohamed Mursi, have in recent weeks started to target members of the secular activist movement.
That movement harnessed social media to touch off street protests unprecedented in Mubarak's 30-year rule. The veteran autocrat mostly stifled protests using a powerful security apparatus that has reasserted itself since Mursi's removal.
"It's very significant, it's not the first time we've seen Douma arrested and facing trial ... But we haven't see high profile activists actually sentenced to such a lengthy sentence," said Heba Morayef, Egypt director with Human Rights Watch.
The session, held at a police facility near a prison on the outskirts of Cairo, was attended by European diplomats.
The army deposed Mursi on July 3 after mass protests against his rule. Since then, the security forces have killed hundreds of his supporters and arrested thousands more.
In the past week, the office of the public prosecutor has ordered Mursi and other leading Islamists to stand trial in two separate cases on charges that include terrorism and conspiring with foreigners against Egypt.
The case against the activists relates to a protest that erupted outside the court where Maher turned himself into the authorities on Nov. 30, heeding a warrant for his arrest on accusations he organised a previous protest without permission.
The accused were charged with calling protests without permission and assaulting policemen. ($1 = 6.9072 Egyptian pounds) (Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Alison Williams)