2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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MPs sit-in the dockBy Gamal Essam El-Din
Following three hours of intensive contacts, three MPs, currently standing trial in a four-year judicial saga known as the loan deputies case, decided to end a sit-in they had staged inside the dock on Monday to protest an order that hearings be adjourned because of a legal technicality, reports Gamal Essam El-Din. For them, the postponement meant that they would remain behind bars for several more months.
The rare sit-in, which lasted for three hours, ended after security forces, who besieged the dock, informed the deputies that the chairman of the Court of Appeals had ordered that court hearings be resumed next week.
The initial decision to postpone hearings was taken after Hassib El-Batrawi, chairman of the State Security Court hearing the case, died last week of a heart attack. On Sunday, El-Batrawi was replaced by a new chief justice, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, who ordered the following day that hearings be postponed indefinitely.
Speaking for the jailed deputies, a tearful Khaled Mahmoud, MP for the Delta governorate of Beheira and a contracting businessman, asserted that the chief justice's order meant that a final court verdict should not be expected in the near future. According to Mahmoud, the trial was in its final stage and El-Batrawi was about to hand down the final verdict. "But now, the postponement means that the trial would not reopen until further notice. We have been in custody for more than 26 months pending a trial which has yet to open," said Mahmoud. For their part, lawyers for the defendants asked for the deputies' release. Following three hours of negotiations conducted under the supervision of the chief of Cairo's security department, it was decided that the court hearings be resumed next week.
The death of El-Batrawi was the last in a series of dramatic incidents taking place since the case unfolded in the summer of 1995. A trial opened in January 1997 and lasted for over two years, with 32 suspects facing charges of misappropriation of public funds involving more than LE1 billion. Last summer, however, the trial was interrupted after prosecutors pressed additional charges, ranging from profiteering to facilitating the illegal acquisition of public funds. Following six weeks of intensive interrogations, Mohsen Sobhi, a tough investigating magistrate, ordered in August that 25 suspects -- out of a total of 32 -- be put on a new trial before another bench of the Supreme State Security Court. He also decided that 15 suspects be taken into custody. The defendants include four MPs, 19 businessmen and eight bankers. Four suspects, however, went out of circulation. They include Ibrahim Aglan, an MP for the Delta governorate of Beheira (who later turned himself in), and three bankers: Aleyya El-Ayyouti, Hossam El-Manawi and Ashraf Labib. One suspect, Mohamed Hussein Saleh, manager of the National Group of Tourism Investments, died last year.
Four of the defendants' lawyers also died and Samir Abul-Maati, chairman of the State Security Court which was in charge of the case in its first stage, broke his leg in a car accident in which his wife was killed.
El-Batrawi, who was suffering from arteriosclerosis, was advised by doctors to undergo heart surgery, but he insisted on completing court hearings first, declaring that he was near the end. One of the defendants' lawyers asserted that El-Batrawi had told him he was keen on delivering a verdict very soon, "because I'm sure that the suspects standing behind bars are innocent."
El-Batrawi, a controversial chief justice, came into the public eye last July when he opened court hearings in a libel lawsuit brought by Agriculture Minister Youssef Wali against three journalists and a cartoonist with the pro-Islamist bi-weekly Al-Shaab newspaper. In August, El-Batrawi ordered the maximum penalty against the Al-Shaab journalists. Each was condemned to two years' imprisonment and fined LE20,000.
Several press reports agreed that with El-Batrawi in charge, the trial of the loan deputies proceeded at a fast pace.
El-Batrawi's death was preceded by another big surprise last week. Ibrahim Aglan, a loan deputy who disappeared last August to evade questioning by the judge, decided to hand himself over to the court. Aglan, a member of the board of the Commercial Bank of Daqahliya (CBD), is charged with cooperating with five members of CBD's board in facilitating the illegal acquisition of as much as LE463.3 million in loans for around 22 companies and eight businessmen, most of them involved in real estate investments. El-Batrawi surprised everyone in the courtroom when he ordered that Aglan be freed.
The court listened last week to the lawyers defending Tawfik Abdou Ismail, an MP for the Daqahliya governorate and ex-minister of tourism. He is charged with profiteering from his previous post as CBD's board chairman by providing huge credit facilities to MPs Mahmoud Azzam and Khaled Mahmoud and other businessmen. Ismail's lawyers asserted that the accusations against him are entirely unfounded. "These credit facilities are part of ordinary banking practices and by no means go against accepted regulations," Ismail's lawyer said.