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Fans proclaim innocence, blame police at first session of Egypt soccer deaths trial
CAIRO (AP) ' Fans charged in connection to Egypt's deadliest-ever soccer riot protested their innocence in the first session of their trial Tuesday, turning their anger on the police who are widely believed to have collaborated in the killing of 75 members of a rival club.
Nine senior officers, including six police generals and a colonel, are among the 73 people charged in the case. If convicted, it would further fuel the widespread speculation that the country's much-despised police force allowed the bloody Feb. 1 attack on a soccer fan organization with which they had a long history of rivalry.
Most of the defendants however are fans of Al-Masry, the main sports club in the Mediterranean city of Port Said where the attack took place. The majority of the victims were fans of a rival team, Cairo's Al-Ahly, a club closely associated with Egypt's 2011 uprising.
"We will get them their justice or die like them," the defendants held in the courtroom cage chanted, fists pumping in the air as they referred to those killed in the riots. The chants suggested they consider themselves scapegoats, and the police the real architects of the crime. Some grieving mothers of the victims, dressed all in black, smiled tearfully and nodded in support.
Egypt's police force is widely loathed. It is viewed as having been the front line of ousted President Hosni Mubarak's regime against dissent, and of having been dominated by corrupt and brutal senior officers. Anti-police demonstrations in reaction to the Feb. 1 soccer riot led to at least 14 deaths.
Protesters outside the Cairo courtroom held photos of those killed and raised posters that said, "I will never forget justice for our brothers," and, "We were killed in Port Said."
The 30-minute killing frenzy broke out when Al-Masry fans stormed the pitch just seconds after the whistle blew, even though the home team had won the match. What happened next is not entirely clear, but according to witnesses and survivors, Al-Ahly fans were attacked with batons, knives, fireworks and a number of weapons. Some were tossed from the tops of bleachers, while others said they were undressed as Port Said fans carved slogans into their skin.
The lights to the stadium were abruptly turned off and the exit doors closed during the melee, forcing a stampede down a narrow corridor after the stadium's gate, which was locked from the outside, was forced open by the crowd. Dozens were crushed to death, including fans of Al-Masry. The youngest victim was 14 years old.
Most of the victims were from Al-Ahly's "Ultras", an organization of the club's most hardcore fans. The Ultras and their equivalents at another Cairo club, Zamalek, have been credited with playing a major role in the 18-day popular uprising that toppled Mubarak in 2011.
Some believe the security forces stood by to punish the Al-Ahly Ultras for their high-profile involvement in the uprising against Mubarak and in subsequent protests against the country's military rulers who took power after his ouster.
Others attribute the violence in Port Said to negligence. Security forces at the stadium did little during the attack. Beforehand, they failed in routine security measures like searching fans for weapons, despite a multitude of signs of trouble, with both sides threatening attacks on one another.
Some of the defendants face murder charges. The officers have been charged with assisting the attackers, and face up to 10 years in prison.
In addition to fans and the police, the manager of the stadium and the man in charge of the lights have also been charged.
After the riot, Egypt imposed a two-year ban on Al Masry, while this year's club season has been suspended. Port Said residents say their city has been stigmatized and is boycotted by other Egyptians.