CAIRO — Three of Egypt’s most prominent secular activists from the 2011 revolution against Hosni Mubarak were convicted Sunday of holding a rally without authorization and attacking police officers, receiving a three-year prison term in the first use of a highly criticized new law.

Judge Amir Assem found the three activists, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel, founders of the April 6 youth movement, guilty of violating the law passed last month. Each of them also faces fines of $7,000.

The government has described the law as an attempt to bring order and stability to the streets amid continued protests against the ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. But rights groups and politicians warn the new law is an attempt by the military-backed government to curtail dissent, particularly ahead of planned elections.

The law came amid a widening legal and security crackdown on supporters of Morsi that has left hundreds dead and thousands arrested on various charges, including inciting violence.

New-York based Human Rights Watch said the new law empowers the security agencies to crush the right of Egyptians to protest against their government. They say authorities are now also targeting secular activists who have continued to be critical of successive leadership since Hosni Mubarak’s 2011 ouster — like the three activists sentenced Sunday.

Heba Morayef, Egypt Director for Human Rights Watch, said the case against the three, a similar referral of 24 other protesters and a leading blogger in Cairo to trial and others in the country’s second city Alexandria, appears to be the beginning of a new trend of targeting high profile activists who were behind the Jan. 25, 2011, protests.

The protesters had used rampant police abuse as a rallying cry against Mubarak and his nearly 30 years in power.

“I see this as very much as the beginning of a serious crackdown on the Jan. 25 generation of protesters. They are the ones who the interior ministry sees as disruptive and the ones to blame for its own loss of status,” Morayef said. “Not only is it a trend, but it is also a reflection of the new empowerment” of the police force, which had rallied strongly for the new law.

The three activists were charged with holding an illegal protest and assaulting policemen after Maher turned himself in for questioning because he was wanted for holding an earlier protest. A crowd of supporters gathered outside the courtroom where Maher was Nov. 30, leading to scuffles with the police officers who later fired tear gas.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press