CAIRO — In a case closely watched by human rights advocates, a leading figure in Egypt's 2011 revolution was freed on bail by a court Sunday after spending nearly four months in jail.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah was arrested in December, soon after a tough new antiprotest law took effect. A leading figure in the uprising against autocrat Hosni Mubarak, he faces charges of organizing an illegal demonstration and assaulting police, both of which he denies.
At Sunday's opening hearing of Abdel-Fattah's trial, lawyers called on the judge to release him and the only other defendant imprisoned in the case, Ahmed Abdel-Rahman, saying there was no reason for their continued detention, hinting it amounted to a punishment.
The presiding judge, Mohammed el-Fikki, agreed, ordering their release and setting bail at 10,000 Egyptian pounds (about $1,400). The court adjourned the proceedings until April 6.
Abdel-Fattah's arrest, together with those of several other prominent secular activists around the same time, marked the start of an expanded crackdown by the military-led interim government against its critics. The case has also cast a spotlight on Egypt's harsh prison conditions, which Abdel-Fattah and others have detailed in jailhouse letters.
Until late last year, Egyptian authorities had mainly targeted Islamist supporters of the ousted President Mohammed Morsi, but in recent months, activists, journalists, filmmakers and academics have been caught up in the wave of arrests as well. In all, an estimated 16,000 people have been jailed since the interim government took power less than nine months ago.
The imprisoned journalists include three men — two with foreign passports — who work for the broadcaster Al-Jazeera English. Human rights groups, Western governments and media advocacy organizations have denounced as ludicrous the terrorism-related charges against them.
Al-Jazeera, which is owned by Qatar, says it considers the case politically motivated. Egypt is locked in a dispute with Qatar over the wealthy Persian Gulf emirate's support for Morsi, who is also imprisoned and facing a variety of serious charges, including espionage.
The journalists' trial was to resume today.
Egyptian courts are currently swamped with legal cases against thousands of defendants arrested on various charges, from violating the protest law to waging a campaign of violence against security and state institutions.
With so many court cases going on simultaneously, lawyers and rights groups express concern about the fairness of such trials.
Ahmed Seif, Abdel-Fattah's father and lead lawyer, said his release was welcomed as a "start on a long road to try to guarantee justice." He said the deeply polarized political environment makes such prospects unpredictable.
Justice "has become like rolling the dice. It depends on so many other things, not including the rule of law or how clever the defense is," he said.
Information from the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press was used in this report.