Egyptian court jails 26 in 'Hezbollah trial'
Egypt has convicted 26 men, accused of working for Lebanon's Hezbollah, of planning attacks inside the country, in a case that has highlighted Sunni Arab concerns about the rising influence of the Shiite militant group.
AFP - An Egyptian court handed down jail sentences on Wednesday to 26 defendants it found guilty of working for Hezbollah in a trial that highlighted difficult relations with the Lebanese militant group.
The 22 accused who were in the dock received jail terms of between six months and 15 years, despite calls from prosecutors for the death penalty to be imposed.
Three of the four defendants who remain on the run, including the alleged head of the Hezbollah cell, Lebanese national Mohammed Qabalan, received life sentences. The fourth received a lesser prison term, lawyers said.
The 26 were convicted of plotting attacks against ships in the Suez Canal and tourist sites, among other charges. Most were detained between late 2008 and January 2009.
The defendants had said in a hand-written letter obtained by AFP that they never planned attacks in Egypt but sought to help the Islamist Hamas rulers of Gaza, who have close ties with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah had admitted after the arrests were publicised in April that he sent a senior commander, Mohammed Yusef Mansur, alias Sami Shihab, to Egypt to support Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
He said the cell comprised no more than 10 people and denied they planned attacks inside Egypt.
But judge Adel Abdel Salam Gomaa rejected the defence case, ruling that the defendants were not simply supporting Hamas but had indeed intended to carry out attacks on Egyptian soil.
"Is targeting ships in the Canal support for the Palestinian cause? Is preparing explosives and targeting tourist resorts support for the Palestinians?" the judge asked.
During the trial, prosecutors had displayed explosives, including suicide belts, that they said police had seized from the defendants.
Lawyers for Mansur acknowledged that he had proposed carrying out attacks against Israeli targets in Egypt in retaliation for the February 2008 assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh but said the idea had been rejected by the movement's leadership.
Mansur himself told AFP during a trial break that he and the other defendants had been tortured. Police have denied the accusation.
After the verdict, defence lawyer Abdelmoneim Abdel Maqsud took issue with the legitimacy of the court, a tribunal of exception set up under Egypt's three-decade-old state of emergency.
"This is a political trial that was taken to a court that offered no guarantee of justice," he said.
The defendants greeted the verdict with cries of "Allahu Akbar (God is Greater)" but the brave face was not shared by relatives of the accused who had gathered outside the court building.
"Ibrahim, apple of your mother's heart, you went for nothing," screamed the mother of one of those jailed, Ibrahim Essam. "I swear he didn't do anything," she added.
Other relatives cried in shock.
The trial reignited a war of words between Egypt, Hezbollah and its Iranian backers.
Egypt, which has no formal diplomatic ties with Shiite Iran, accuses Tehran of backing the plot.
Iran and Hezbollah say Egypt contrived the case against the men.
Egypt had responded angrily to a speech by Nasrallah calling on Egyptians to protest, and army officers to resign, over the government's refusal to permanently open its crossing with Gaza during a devastating war between Israel and Hamas at the turn of 2009.