Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2003
Issue No. 644
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'Deviant' thought on trial

As the trial of 26 suspected members of the banned Islamic Liberation Party resumed, observers speaking to Jailan Halawi described the prosecutor's case as "contradictory" and "weak"

State Security Prosecutor Walid El- Minshawi told a Cairo state security court on Saturday that Egypt was not "putting thought on trial, nor are we infringing on freedom of opinion or any other right". What was on trial, according to El-Minshawi, was "deviant thought", and "the advocacy of a Caliphate".

The continuing courtroom drama in the case of the Islamic Liberation Party, and its activities in Egypt, has resulted in yet another high-profile trial that has been widely covered by the international media. In this case, the source of the attention has clearly been the inclusion of three British nationals amongst the 26 defendants on trial.

The defendants have been charged with joining a secret, illegal group that aims to obstruct the legal system and undermine state institutions, as well as attempting to revive the activities of a banned group, and possessing anti- government literature.

At previous court sessions, the defendants had pleaded innocent. Many told Al-Ahram Weekly that they were being tried for being "devout Muslims" whose only crime is worshipping God. "We are not accused of carrying out any violent acts or even attempting to do so," said one. "It is unfair to persecute us for our beliefs."

The three Britons are: Ian Malcolm Nisbett, and Reza Pankhurst, both computer consultants formerly based in London; and Maajid Nawaz, an undergraduate at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies who was attending Alexandria University to study Arabic and law. Although all three Britons did not deny their membership in the Islamic Liberation Party (which is legal in the United Kingdom but banned in Egypt) back home, they adamantly insisted that they were not involved in any political activities in Egypt.

After a two-month hiatus, the trial resumed this week, amongst a renewed wave of criticism in the British press, and from the British government and the families of the defendants.

Zara Pankhurst -- defendant Reza Pankhurst's mother --has become the de facto spokeswoman for the three Britons, continuously keeping the media updated with the details of the case. According to Zara, "the prosecution did not think the British authorities would pay any attention to the case since the defendants are Muslims, and they are very surprised at what has happened."

In fact, British authorities have been actively involved. Lady Elizabeth Symons, the UK's minister of state for international and trade investment, wrote a letter of support to the three Britons saying that she believes their confessions were extracted "under duress". According to Symons, "the [British] government takes allegations of torture and mistreatment very seriously, and your case has been raised regularly with the Egyptians at all levels... with the Egyptian foreign minister as well as the president."

British Consul Gordon Brown has also been actively attempting to improve the British defendants' prison conditions. The three UK nationals are now in custody at Mazra't Torah, widely considered an "intellectuals'" rather than a "criminal" prison. Still, Zara Pankhurst remains unsatisfied. "My son's health, as well as the health of one of his colleagues," she told the Weekly, "is deteriorating. Not only do prison conditions remain poor, but during the transportation of the defendants from the jail to the courthouse, the trucks are crowded and under ventilated, which can easily end up causing heat stroke." Zara claimed "this was especially unacceptable because Egypt receives funds from the UK and the US to improve these prison conditions, and yet they still remain unsatisfactory and in direct contradiction with basic human rights."

Criticising the prosecutor's case as "very weak" Zara Pankhurst also said that, "in a normal democratic society this case would not be brought to court, because people would have laughed at it. The [Egyptian] system has not taken a single step that might inspire any confidence in us that justice will rule, or that the suspects will be tried in accordance with democratic principles."

From behind the caged dock, British defendant Maajid Nawaz said he found it, "extremely funny that the prosecutor started his argument by saying 'we are not trying thought', and then continued 'but we are trying deviant thought'."

Very few of the Egyptian defendants or their families, meanwhile, spoke at any length to the press. One Egyptian defendant, who requested anonymity, did say, "there is no way the case would have generated all this publicity if it hadn't been for the three Britons involved. Otherwise we would have been treated like other Islamist groups and taken to the military court to face an even more unfair trial."

Other Egyptian defendants complained to the Weekly that even though they are being held at the same prison compound as the Britons, the Egyptian defendants are in a different wing -- Istiqbal Torah -- which legal experts confirm features a far harsher environment than the Mazra't Torah wing. There were also complaints that while the British defendants are granted weekly visitation rights, their Egyptian counterparts are only allowed one visit every 15 days.

According to one of the Egyptian defendants, "the British get more privileges because their consul visits them. We need our consul to visit us too," he joked.

Saturday's session was exclusively reserved for the prosecutor's presentation of his case. El-Minshawi referred to the defendants as "extremists" whose interpretation of religion and advocacy of a Caliphate was being used as "a bridge to achieve political gains and amass power".

According to El-Minshawi, the prosecution's research -- involving a comprehensive review of the holy Qur'an and the Sunna (Prophet Mohamed's teachings), as well as consultations with Islamic scholars -- had shown that there was no proof that the Caliphate system is obligatory in Islam. As a result, argued El-Minshawi, the prosecution became certain that "the group's call is based more on achieving political gains rather than religious ones as claimed."

El-Minshawi said that between 2000 and the time of their arrest in April 2002, all 26 suspects (including one who is at large) attempted to revive the activities of the banned Islamic Liberation Party as well as establish an outlawed group aiming to overthrow governments in various Islamic states in order to revive an Islamic Caliphate.

The prosecution's case is based on the statements of two prosecution witnesses (both state security officers), evidence seized from the defendants' houses, as well as "confessions" obtained from the defendants themselves.

El-Minshawi said that some of the defendants had admitted [during interrogation] to being members of the group, and confirmed the existence of a headquarters in Cairo; others had made statements regarding their intention to overthrow governments and establish an Islamic Caliphate.

The prosecutor concluded presenting his case yesterday and the court adjourned until 6 July to hear the defence.

The Liberation Party was founded in Egypt in 1974 by two Palestinians -- Salem Rahhal and Saleh Serrya -- only to be crushed by Egyptian authorities that same year, after being blamed for an attempted coup d'état known as "the incident of the Technical Military Academy", in which armed militants attacked the Cairo-based academy.

The defendants could face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty. State Security Court verdicts cannot be appealed, and can only be overturned by the president.

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