"Hezbollah cell" goes on trial in Egypt

A group of men accused of plotting attacks in Egypt for Lebanon’s Hezbollah group has gone on trial in a state security court in Cairo. The accused deny the allegations and some of the defendants claim they were tortured while in Egyptian custody.
Egypt Hezbollah torture

CAIRO/BEIRUT, August 24, 2009 (MENASSAT) — The 22 defendants, all dressed in white and held in an iron cage, denied charges of spying on ships in the Suez Canal and plotting attacks in holiday resorts in Egypt’s tourist-crowded Sinai Peninsula in a court hearing on Sunday.

They pleaded not guilty to charges of "conspiracy to murder, spying for a foreign organization with intent of conducting terrorist attacks and weapons possession."

The group is also accused of sending operatives into the Gaza Strip to help Palestinian militant groups there.

The defendants are 26 in total, counting two Lebanese, five Palestinians, and 19 Egyptians. Four of the suspects are on the run, however, including alleged Lebanese mastermind Mohammed Qabalan, having been charged in absentia.

It was in April this year that Egyptian security officials announced that they had uncovered a Hezbollah ring that was plotting to destabilize the country.

Shortly after, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah admitted that one of the defendants, Lebanese Mohammed Yusuf Ahmed Mansur, also known as Sami Shihab, was a Hezbollah member that had been sent to Egypt to supervise logistical support for the resistance in occupied Palestine.

But Nasrallah denied claims that the group was seeking to harm Egypt.

The group is being tried before a state security court, an institution set up under Egypt's emergency laws, which has been in effect for the past 28 years. “Those standing trial before such a court have no right of appeal of the court’s ruling,” said the defendants’ lawyer Muntasser Al-Zayyat, a well-known Egyptian Islamist activist.

 “The court’s rulings can only become affective when signed by the president himself; this is a court that does not provide the basic right of a fair trial.”

During the hearing, one man reportedly cried out, “We are at your command Nasrallah” in an apparent reference to the Hezbollah leader.

And as the charges were read out, several of the defendants are said to have shouted, "We live and die as Egyptians. We will never betray our country."

Nasrallah: an agent of Iran

Reports of torture and abuse also surfaced on Sunday. Reuters quoted at least one of the accused saying that he had been tortured in Egyptian custody. One of the defendants had been referred to a medical check-up in a hospital, but lawyer Al-Zayyat told MENASSAT in an interview, “Since we attended the first investigation in front of the state security, we said ‘they are suffering from harsh conditions and are forced to make confessions that are not true.’ We also said that detaining them for more than 6 months, indicates they were tortured, and what they said yesterday reveals this truth.”

In addition to the defendants themselves, and their lawyers, several human rights groups say the Egyptian police forced the men to confess through torture.

The recent developments in court, “including withdrawing confessions and referring one of them to hospital,” according to Al-Zayyat, will help prove the “atmosphere of intimidation and forceful confessions during the investigation.”

“Their statements must have an impact in court. I think in the coming sessions we will witness more talks about this climate of forceful confessions, and the court must recognize them.”

Whether they will be able to prove it in court Al-Zayyat said, “We will have what we need to prove this. The defendants did not see a doctor until 6 months later. We will prove this through the situations they were held in.”

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has denounced the charges against the men and said that the case is politically motivated, implying that it is an attempt by the Egyptian authorities to get back at Hezbollah for criticizing Egypt during Israel’s recent offensive in the Gaza Strip.

During the Israeli military offensive in December 2008 and January of this year, Hezbollah was vocally critical of the Egyptian government’s decision not to open Egypt’s Rafah border with Gaza to relieve the Israeli-imposed blockade on the Strip. 

Nasrallah suggested Cairo was complicit in the Israeli blockade on Gaza and cast doubt on Egypt’s neutrality in efforts to mediate a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas.

Egypt responded by branding Nasrallah as an “agent of Iran.”

“Hassan Nasrallah's criticism of Egypt confirms once more that he is nothing more than an agent of the Iranian regime and takes his orders from Tehran," the Egyptian authorities said in an official statement.

Surprise Lebanese visit

Egypt’s foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit has also previously said that Iran is using Hezbollah to gain ground in Egypt.

But Al-Zayyat said, “State media played on the regime’s side, and tried to neutralize public opinion by portraying the defendants as enemies of Egypt, defaming them, reporting false information about them, and at times we were forced to answer - in the press as well - to those false allegations by state media.”

But the lawyer did make note of a few media outlets that provided an alternative viewpoint to the state media. “Some private Egyptian press played a positive role in providing accurate and truthful information for the public, namely Almasri Alyoum and Al-Dostour newspapers.”

Al-Zayyat, who has become an expert in Egypt’s legal labyrinth when it comes to political suppression, says that this move is part of the state’s overall effort to subdue the Egyptian population’s support for Palestinians.

“The Egyptian people are connected to the Palestinian struggle, and they support, both morally and practically, the Palestinian struggle for freedom from occupation, despite the regime’s attempts to sever the Egyptian people from the Palestinian cause. We saw similar attempts when the so-called international organization of the Muslim Brotherhood was trialed. The public is aware of these attempts, and they will react in support.”

Having dealt with similar cases in the past, Al-Zayyat has expressed concern over the court that the defendants are being tried in and the police department to which they were sent.

“I personally expressed my concerns when the case was sent to Abdeen police department, knowing the case had no link to Abdeen, but the intention apparently was to hand the case to Adel Abdel Salam Gommaa, who is specialized in such cases. He sentenced most of the regime's opposition, including Saad Eddine Ibrahim, Anwar Nour and others.”

Following Sunday’s hearing, the defendants were escorted away in blue vans with flashing blue lights as relatives looked on under the scorching heat, on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. The trial has been adjourned until October. One of the interesting developments of yesterday’s session was the presence of the Lebanese lawyer and recently elected Member of Parliament Emile Rahme, a Christian representing the Baalbeck-Hermil district in Lebanon's northern Beqaa, an area described as a Hezbollah stronghold. A smart move on the defense council’s behalf, in the hope that the Egyptian authorities will grow weary of violating the law and due process? Well, hopefully.