Egypt Region International Economy Opinion Culture Focus Profile Features Travel Living Sports People Time Out Chronicles Cartoons Letters
Trials and extraditionsBy Khaled Dawoud
What has been described as one of the most important trials of Islamist militants in recent years will come to an end on 10 April, when sentence is passed on 107 defendants, the Supreme Military Court announced last week.
The trial, dubbed by the Arabic-language press as the "returnees from Albania" because 12 of the defendants were extradited from there, has seen some dramatic court sessions.
The defendants, including 63 still at large, are suspected members of the Jihad organisation, one of the most violent militant organisations active in the country since the upsurge of anti-government violence in late 1992. Unlike Egypt's largest militant organisation, Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiya, which unleashed its violence mainly against policemen, Copts and tourists, Jihad has traditionally targeted key government officials and carried out major anti-government attacks, such as the bombing of the Egyptian Embassy in Pakistan in 1995.
Topping the list of defendants standing trial in absentia is Jihad leader Ayman El-Zawahri, believed to be living in Afghanistan and a close associate of Saudi dissident Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire and "godfather" of violent Islamist groups worldwide, has been described as "public enemy No 1" by the United States after Washington charged him with plotting the bombing of its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August.
Adding to the significance of the trial is the fact that out of the 47 defendants present in court, at least 17 have been handed over by foreign countries, namely Albania, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan. According to observers, this is indicative of the mounting pressure brought by Egypt and the United States on several countries to clamp down on Islamist militants.
On 16 March, only two days before the date for sentencing was announced, the courtroom at the Haikstep desert military camp, 35km north of Cairo, was once again the scene of a most dramatic development. Three defendants named in the indictment bill, but previously absent, suddenly appeared, blindfolded and handcuffed. They were placed by security guards in an iron cage. Ahmed Salama Mabrouk, yet another militant described by prosecutors as the "right-hand man" of Jihad leader El-Zawahri, and Essam Hafez were handed over by Azerbaijan. Mohamed Said El-Ashri was extradited by the UAE. According to prosecutors, Mabrouk is a member of the so-called Shura Council of the Jihad group, its highest decision-making body.
The other defendants present, held in a separate cage, immediately protested at the way in which the three had been brought into the courtroom. The chief military judge, whose name cannot be revealed for security reasons, asked the guards to remove the blindfolds. He later read out the charges against them, and asked each defendant for his plea. All three denied the charges.
The military prosecutor told the court the three defendants were handed over in February. But Mabrouk shouted from his cage that he was arrested in September in the course of a business trip to Azerbaijan. He said he could not understand why he was not brought to court when the trial opened. Mabrouk, like the other defendants, alleged that he had been tortured. He went on to reveal what he described as a surprise: he claimed that El-Zawahri used forged documents to travel with other militants to the former Soviet republic of Daghestan in December 1996. He was arrested on the border and kept in prison for six months before bin Laden intervened and sent one of his associates to pay a fine to secure the group's release. The authorities in Daghestan could not identify El-Zawahri because of his forged passport, and Egyptian authorities were not aware of his arrest.
Hafez said he was also arrested in September in Azerbaijan in the course of a business trip, while El-Ashri said he was detained two months ago. Hafez is married to a Canadian woman and holds a Canadian passport.
Another defendant, Khaled Abul-Dahab, has an American passport and is the son of the pilot of the Libyan passenger plane shot down by Israel in 1971 killing all 156 of the civilian passengers and crew.
The case also includes seven militants who have been sentenced to death in absentia in previous military trials. Ahmed El-Naggar and Ahmed Ismail, both handed over by Albania, were the only two present in court out of seven sentenced to death in absentia. The other five include two key militant figures. One of them is Mohamed Shawki El-Islambouli, brother of Khaled El-Islambouli, the army officer who led the assassination squad that killed President Anwar El-Sadat in 1981. He was among the first militants to be sentenced to death by the military court in 1992 and is believed to be living in Afghanistan together with El-Zawahri and bin Laden. The other is Yasser Serri, sentenced to death in 1994 for plotting a failed attempt against then Prime Minister Atef Sidki. Serri is seeking political asylum in Britain, where he has been running a media centre for Islamist groups for the past four years. He was one of three militants released after a four-day detention in a London police station last week.
Military prosecutors demanded the death penalty for 35 of the 107 defendants, including the majority of those still at large. Prosecutors demanded life imprisonment for the other 72.
Defence attorneys, who claimed throughout the trial that confessions made by defendants were the result of torture, said they were certain that a few death sentences would be handed down. Some security experts expressed the fear that this could result in revenge attacks by Jihad. However, the nearly worldwide crackdown against militants suspected of involvement in acts of violence has undermined the group's ability to carry out major attacks, an informed security source told Al-Ahram Weekly.
All defendants are charged with "joining an illegal organisation whose aim is to undermine state institutions and use terrorism to attain these objectives." Many are also charged with the possession of forged documents. On Tuesday, the London-based Arabic daily, Al-Hayat, quoted an Islamist living in Britain as saying that Azerbaijan had handed over to Egypt a third suspected militant, Ihab Saqr. He is not named in the Jihad case and security sources did not confirm the report.