Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
7 - 13 September 2000
Issue No. 498
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Reading deferred sentences

By Khaled Dawoud

Sentences in the controversial military trial of 20 leading Muslim Brotherhood figures arrested a year ago on charges of seeking to revive the activities of the outlawed group were originally scheduled to be handed down on 30 July. Yet on that day, an army officer at the Haikstep military camp, where trials of suspected extremists have been conducted since 1992, informed reporters without elaboration that the pronouncement had been deferred until 3 September. On Sunday, an officer announced to the dozens of family members and reporters who gathered outside the military camp that there would be still another postponement, this time until 7 November.

Lawyers defending the 20 suspects, all prominent figures at professional syndicates such as lawyers and engineers, argued that the second postponement confirmed their belief that this is a "political trial". The lawyers allege that the government was determined not to allow any prominent Brotherhood figure to contest the upcoming Bar Association elections _ the date for which has not yet been set _ or the general election during the second half of October.

Essam El-Eryan, a Brotherhood figure who was released earlier this year after spending five years in jail, was quoted as saying that he feared the government might arrest more Brotherhood figures ahead of the parliamentary elections. Reports of the arrests of Brotherhood figures nearly all over the country in recent months appear frequently in national and opposition newspapers.

For this reason, the group's leadership has been keeping a low profile, delaying until the last minute the release of the names of its election candidates. Members were also ordered to refrain from holding pre-election coordination meetings so that they may not be arrested by police on the charge of seeking to revive the group's activities. Furthermore, Brotherhood officials said they would not field more than 80 candidates in the parliamentary elections, nearly half the number of those who contested the last elections of 1995.

Ahead of the 1995 ballot, authorities launched the largest ever crackdown against the previously tolerated group, arresting more than 100 of its members and referring them to military trials. The group's leadership apparently wanted to demonstrate to the government that it nevertheless remained strong, and fielded 150 candidates. All but one were unsuccessful.

Meanwhile, the order of the Political Parties Committee to freeze the activities of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party _ which has been in alliance with the Brotherhood since 1987 _ dealt another blow to the group. The Brotherhood had reportedly made use of the Labour Party's offices all over the country. Moreover, its leaders used to regularly publish articles in Labour's mouthpiece, Al-Shaab, making it possible for the group to address its sympathisers despite the fact that it does not enjoy legal status.

The 20 Brotherhood figures on trial were arrested in mid-October while partaking in a meeting of members of several professional syndicates. They included former MP and member of the Bar Association's council, Mukhtar Nouh. After two months in detention, they appeared in court on 25 December. Their military trial has been the longest since the government started referring militants to military tribunals as part of a broader strategy of combating violence.

An informed judicial source told Al-Ahram Weekly that Sunday's postponement was due to the fact that one of the judges on the panel was suffering from health problems. He expected the judge to recover by 7 November, the new date set for the pronouncement.


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