Al-Ahram Weekly Online
16 - 22 May 2002
Issue No.586
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Standard of proof

As the retrial of prominent human rights activist Saadeddin Ibrahim continued, his lawyers argued that the foggy prosecution case proved their client was innocent. Jailan Halawi reports


Ibrahim listens to prosecution witnesses from behind bars

At Bab Al-Khalq Court in downtown Cairo on Sunday, the fourth session of the retrial of Saadeddin Ibrahim, a renowned human rights activist and sociology professor at the American University in Cairo (AUC), resumed. Ibrahim is director of the Ibn Khaldoun Centre for Developmental Studies (ICDS) which, for the past 12 years, has been active on issues related to democracy, human rights and minorities in the Arab world.

He is standing trial along with 27 co- defendants, mostly Ibn Khaldoun employees, for illegally receiving funds from the European Union (EU) to finance a project aimed at encouraging Egyptians to participate in parliamentary elections. Prosecutors claim Ibrahim violated military Decree No 4, issued 10 years ago, which prohibits the receipt of foreign funding without government permission.

In addition, Ibrahim is charged with embezzlement and spreading rumours aimed at tarnishing Egypt's image.

The Sunday night session was dedicated to the testimony of four prosecution witnesses. They included a police officer, a state security police officer as well as two members from the Central Bank of Egypt (CBE), who were members of a committee in charge of investigating any financial irregularities carried out by the ICDS.

Asked by the defence team about illegal financial transactions by Ibrahim and some of his co-defendants, members of the CBE committee were unable to recall many details. They said that investigations started more than two years ago. which made it very difficult for them to remember specific numbers or minor details.

The testimonies were later described by Ibrahim's defence team as "unintentionally" favouring their case.

According to prosecutors, Ibrahim mislead the EU about how their money was spent, provided fake figures and deposited part of the money allocated for the project to his bank accounts. But in fact, say the defence, Ibrahim was financing ICDS's work though his own funds.

"Through basic mathematical operations like adding and subtracting, we wanted to prove to court that Ibrahim was a creditor to the ICDS and not a debtor. There were occasions were he spent money on the project from his personal account," explained Abdel- Qader Hashim, one of Ibrahim's lawyers.

Ibrahim was convicted of embezzling funds from the EU, although the EU statements and affidavits said the organisation had no objection to how its $250,000 grant for monitoring the 2000 legislative elections was spent.

Prosecutors charged that Ibrahim, bound by a bilateral contract with the EU to recruit new voters, had assigned a number of the defendants with fake voting cards -- a prerequisite for casting ballots -- and presented them to the EU as evidence that the centre was doing its job.

One of the defendants, Magda El-Beih, was accused of bribing a policeman, Mohamed Hassanein Omara at the Nile Delta town of Menoufiya, to provide her with certificates claiming that she had managed to register more than 4,000 new voters on her own. The policeman allegedly stole an official stamp and forged the signatures of senior officers. In return for her role in registering this large number of voters, El- Beih allegedly received LE10,800. She is said to have paid the policeman LE350.

Maher Gamal Tahoun, the state security officer assigned to investigate the case, was summoned to the court as the prosecutor's witness. Almost 20 minutes of the one-and-a-half-hour session was devoted his testimony and cross examination.

Dozens of questions were directed at the witness by defence lawyers with the aim of proving the inaccuracy of his investigative reports -- on which the state security investigation department has built the case against Ibrahim and his co-defendants.

Asked how, from whom and when did Omara steal the official stamp, Tahoun said he did not know. According to Hashim, those were essential questions related to the elements of the alleged crime. "The witness only stated that Omara stole the stamp from his superiors but failed to specify who was in charge of it and when it was stolen," Hashim said.

Tahoun was asked if, in his opinion, the senior officers in charge of the stamp should also be questioned. He said he did not know. Hashim then said that the witness was prevaricating, since in similar cases under the law, any government employee failing to safeguard a government property in his charge would be questioned for negligence.

The defence cross examination also attempted to show the inconsistencies of the allegations, as well as the selectivity in targeting Ibrahim while leaving others who have committed similar, and in many cases greater, "violations" untouched. In fact, there was not one word in what the witness said which confirmed Ibrahim's involvement in the incident. Tahoun's answers to most questions quoted secret sources who he claimed he could not reveal, or referred to the prosecutors.

Tahoun said that he learnt from his "secret" sources about a meeting between El-Beih and Omara in which they made their deal. Then, when asked by Omara's lawyer if anyone attended this meeting, he replied in the negative.

According to prosecutors, part of the EU funding was allocated to a documentary film aimed at encouraging political participation. The script of the documentary -- which includes the charge that parliamentary elections are regularly rigged -- is part of the evidence prosecutors are using to gain Ibrahim's conviction for "tarnishing the country's image."

Although lawyers think that he should be amongst the defendants, Ali Salim, script-writer and director of the documentary, will stand before the court as a defence witness.

Prosecutors have also charged Ibrahim with spreading false rumours and lies about the domestic situation in Egypt. They used a document in the form of a letter sent by Ibrahim to a Protestant group in Germany suggesting a study on Muslim-Coptic educational discrimination. In the letter, Ibrahim allegedly wrote that Coptic Christians "have suffered oppression since the Islamic invasion of Egypt in 641 AD."

But Ibrahim told Al-Ahram Weekly that the letter was wrongly translated and that what he actually wrote alluded to the "Islamic conquest of Egypt, and not invasion."

Since Tuesday, the court started hearing the testimonies of defence witnesses on a daily basis. According to Hashim, witnesses will aim at convincing the court that Ibrahim is a human rights figure who deserves "respect" rather than "imprisonment."

Defence witnesses include prominent intellectuals and human rights activists who worked with Ibrahim for years in joint projects.

Last May, Ibrahim, who holds dual Egyptian-American nationality, was sentenced to seven years imprisonment by a state security court. Twenty-seven of his associates received terms ranging between a one-year suspended prison term and five years. In February, Egypt's top appeals court ordered a retrial, saying the first case had failed to properly examine both the prosecutor's evidence and the defence's arguments.

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