CAIRO // An Egyptian court sentenced five policemen to 10 years in prison in absentia yesterday for killing protesters, in a rare conviction of security officials accused of using deadly force against the demonstrations that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
Typically, defendants who do not appear in court are automatically convicted, but will also receive a new trial once apprehended.
However, families of slain protesters attending the court session counted the convictions as a victory. They broke down in tears and chanted "God is great!" in a show of relief.
Until now, out of the nearly 200 policemen and security officials who face charges related to the killing of protesters in 2011, one was convicted in absentia. When had a retrial, he received a one-year suspended sentence.
Others are still standing trial, including Mubarak himself. A verdict in his case is expected next month.
Out of the 17 defendants who appeared yesterday before the Giza Criminal Court, two others received one-year suspended sentences while ten other policemen were acquitted.
The 17 were charged in relation to the killing of five protesters and the injury of 17 others in front of three police stations during Egypt's 2011 uprising in Giza, Cairo's twin city.
More than 800 protesters were killed during the upheaval that forced Mubarak to step down. Many died from gunshot wounds sustained in clashes outside police stations.
Many Egyptians accuse authorities of failing to adequately investigate what happened during the 18 chaotic days of street protests in January and February 2011, or to hold those responsible for killing protesters to account.
Some critics say it is because the investigating prosecutors were loyal to the old regime and intentionally brought to court cases that lacked adequate evidence.
Others say that most of policemen facing trials were acting in self-defence, and were protecting police stations attacked by crowds during the uprising.
The ruling comes one the eve of Egypt's first free democratic presidential vote and may raise the stakes for other security officials accused of having a role in the killings.
Egypt's premier Kamal Al Ganzuri yesterday urged for calm during the country's first presidential election since the uprising, calling on political forces to accept the results of the historic vote.
Mr Ganzuri called on Egyptians to "stand together to ensure the success of the electoral process and to accept the decision of the majority of Egyptians who will express their will through the ballot boxes."
In a statement, he expressed hope that "the elections proceed with calm" and called on "candidates, political forces, parties to urge their supporters to respect the will of others and accept the results of the election."
There have been few reports of the violence and intimidation by hired thugs that helped secure crushing election wins for Mubarak and his allies. But the official start of campaigning early this month was marred by deadly clashes in Cairo between troops and opponents of army rule, and some presidential hopefuls were disqualified at the last minute, sparking protests.
Around 50 million eligible voters are expected to vote tomorrow and Thursday with a run-off scheduled next month should there be no outright winner.
* Associated Press with additional reports from Reuters and Agence-France Presse