By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top prosecutor on Thursday charged 75 people in connection with a deadly soccer riot last month in the Mediterranean city of Port Said in which authorities said fans were thrown to their death off the stadium walls and others killed by explosives as they tried to flee.
Scores of fans face murder charges and nine police officers were accused of complicity in murder, in the Feb. 1 riot that left at least 74 people dead. It was the world's worst soccer-related disaster in 15 years.
The riot began minutes after the final whistle in a league game between Cairo club al-Ahly and al-Masry of Port Said. The home side won 3-1 but its fans set upon the rival supporters in a killing frenzy that witnesses said lasted 30 minutes. Many witnesses claimed that policemen at the venue did nothing to stop the bloodshed.
The riot shocked soccer crazy Egypt, deepening the sense of uncertainty felt by many as their nation continues to be roiled by unrest a year after the ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak. That senior police officers were charged in connection with the tragedy would lend credence to persistent claims that the nation's much hated police were deliberately turning a blind eye to the wave of violent crime gripping Egypt over the past year.
Police have yet to fully retake the streets after they melted away in yet-not-fully-explained circumstances on the fourth day of the 18-day popular uprising that toppled Mubarak.
An end to police brutality was among the main root causes of the uprising and many rights activists believe the police's apparent reluctance to restore security is payback for their humiliating defeat in the face of millions of unarmed protesters.
A statement issued by the office of the nation's prosecutor general said nine police officers, including six major generals and a colonel, participated in the Port Said riot by way of "assistance" to al-Masry fans. They said the officers, along with several al-Masry officials, knew in advance that the home fans planned to attack al-Ahly supporters.
They, said the statement, allowed al-Masry fans to exceed by 3,000 the maximum number authorized to attend the game and did not search any of them for weapons before they were allowed inside the ground. Many of the charged fans were criminals known to the local police, it said.
It said the police at the match's venue did nothing to stop al-Masry fans from attacking their rivals.
"Those from the police among the defendants failed to take any measure ... to maintain security, protect lives and property," it said, in what is probably the strongest official condemnation since Mubarak's ouster of the police's attitude toward the rise of crime in Egypt.
The nine police officers included Maj. Gen. Issam Samak, who was Port Said's chief of security at the time of the riot. Samak has already been suspended.
The statement said the charges were based on video footage of the riot and the confessions of suspects. It said the killing of the protesters was planned in advance and that the culprits prepared for the massacre with knifes, rocks and explosives. Fans from the two teams have a history of animosity, but no one had expected that the heated rivalry could turn murderous.
It described how al-Masry fans threw al-Ahly supports to their death from the terraces and how they detonated explosives in their midst as they became trapped in a corridor leading to an exit gate.
Among those charged is the chief electrical engineer of the Port Said stadium, a fact that alludes to numerous witness accounts that power inexplicably went out at the venue minutes after the final whistle. The darkness, according to witnesses, helped the assailants to attack with impunity.
On Thursday, thousands of al-Ahly fans staged a sit-in outside the office of the nation's top prosecutor, Mahmoud Abdel-Maguid, to protest what they said was the delay in filing the charges and to demand swift justice.
Many of the fans, known as Ultras Ahlawy, wore the red jersey of the club, possibly the most popular in Egypt.
The Port Said riot led to the cancellation of the soccer league and sparked days of clashes in Cairo between police and protesters accusing the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of police, of doing nothing to protect al-Ahly fans.
The Egyptian soccer federation has yet to punish al-Masry for the riot. It is widely expected to relegate the team to a lower league and ban any official games from being played on its grounds.