Cairo - Seven men were sentenced on Wednesday to life in prison over sexual assaults at Cairo's Tahrir Square, following a pledge by Egypt's new authorities to tackle an epidemic in such crimes.
Since the 2011 uprising which toppled president Hosni Mubarak, cases of sexual harassment have soared in Egypt, with women regularly attacked at rallies by mobs in and around Tahrir, the epicentre of demonstrations.
A Cairo court also sentenced two other defendants to 20 years in prison over the assaults since January 2013.
The attacks took place on June 3 and 8 as revellers celebrated Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidential election victory and inauguration, and on January 25, 2013 when Egypt marked the second anniversary of the anti-Mubarak revolt.
The defendants were found guilty of kidnapping, rape, sexual attacks, attempted murder and torture of several women during the rallies.
The court ordered the nine convicts to be kept under police surveillance for five years after they have served their prison terms.
Life sentences in Egypt run 25 years.
“Two groups of criminals went to the square and caught a woman and her daughter. They took the woman to an area near a mosque close to the square where she was attacked and stripped of her clothes,” the prosecution said of the June 3 assault.
“They beat her and when she tried to escape, hot water fell on her, causing serious burn injuries. Despite this, the attackers circled her and sexually attacked her until she was rescued by police and citizens.”
On June 8, several women aged between 17 and 42 were attacked at the square by members of the same mob who carried out the June 3 assault, the prosecution said.
“The attackers separated the women, took them to different spots in the square and circled them.
“They then attacked the women, beat them and even threatened to kidnap the children of one of the victims,” it charged.
Activists have repeatedly accused the government of turning a blind eye to the country's rampant phenomenon of sexual violence.
Between November 2012 and June 2013, around 250 cases of sexual assault or harassment by mobs or rapes using weapons were reported during protests in Cairo, according to activists.
Fathi Farid, a member of the group “I saw Harassment”, said Wednesday's ruling was “speedy” but also “politicised as the state wants to show it is active in the fight against sexual violence”.
Egypt, which had no specific law on sexual harassment, only recently approved penalties for such offences of jail terms, fines or both.
After Sisi's election, authorities pledged to tackle the epidemic, as graphic video footage of a woman being sexually assaulted at Tahrir Square went viral on YouTube in early June, sparking outrage.
The footage, apparently filmed using a mobile phone, shows a mob of men surrounding a young woman, who was stripped and badly bruised in the assault.
“Egypt's women, and the world, are watching to see what President Sisi will do to put a halt to the sexual attacks and harassment,” the New York-based Human Rights Watch said last month.