CAIRO - Egyptian authorities on Saturday released nearly two dozen Islamist women and girls convicted for staging a street protest after an appeals court reduced their harsh penalties, including prison terms of 11 years, to suspended sentences.

The initial verdict handed down late last month caused an international and domestic outcry.

"This is God-given," Ola Alaa, an 18-year-old medical student who was initially sentenced to 11 years, told the Associated Press by telephone after reaching her home in the coastal city of Alexandria. "I think [the authorities] wanted to calm things down," she said.

The 21 defendants, who included seven teenagers, were held in custody for more than a month.

The 14 women, mostly around the age of 20, were originally sentenced to 11 years in prison after being convicted in connection to an Oct. 31 protest in support of ousted President Mohammed Morsi. The minors were ordered held until they turned 18, when their cases would have been reevaluated. The group faced charges including "thuggery" and the use of weapons, the latter for allegedly having thrown rocks.

Defense lawyer al-Shimaa Saad said women received one-year suspended sentences while the minors' sentences were reduced to three-month probation.

Human Rights Watch called the sentences "blatantly political" and said the court had violated the right to free trial, by failing to allow witnesses to testify in the women's defense, and by providing little evidence for the charges they faced. Egyptian activists, including many critics of the Islamists, saw the sentences as evidence of the new military-backed government's intolerance for opposition.

The government says the crackdown is necessary as the three years of turmoil that followed Egypt's 2011 uprising have done crippling damage to the economy. It accuses Morsi supporters of seeking to destabilize the country. But few officials came forward to defend the sentences passed on the women.