Relatives [right] of Sudanese Hassan al-Manakheily, one of the 26 suspects accused of plotting attacks on behalf of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group on Egyptian tourist sites and ships in the Suez Canal, react to his sentence outside the Emergency State Security Court in Cairo yesterday
A Cairo court yesterday handed down jail terms of up to life to 26 defendants it convicted of working for Hezbollah, in a trial which reflected Egypt’s tense ties with the Lebanese militant group.
The 22 accused who were in the dock received jail terms of between six months and 15 years, after calls from prosecutors for the death penalty.
Three of the four defendants on the run, including the alleged Lebanese head of the Hezbollah cell, Mohamed Qabalan, were handed life sentences. The fourth received a lesser prison term, lawyers said.
The 26 were convicted of plotting attacks against ships in the Suez Canal and on tourist sites, among other charges. Most were detained between late 2008 and January 2009.
The defendants had said in a hand-written letter obtained by AFP that they never planned attacks in Egypt but had tried to help the Gaza Strip’s Palestinian Islamist Hamas rulers who have close ties with Hezbollah.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah admitted after the arrests were publicised in April that he sent a senior commander, Mohamed Yusef Mansur, alias Sami Shihab, to Egypt to support Palestinian militants in Gaza.
He said the cell comprised no more than 10 people and denied they planned attacks in Egypt.
But Judge Adel Abdul Salam Gomaa rejected the defence case, ruling that the defendants were not simply acting in support of Hamas but had planned to carry out attacks on Egyptian soil.
“Is targeting ships in the canal support for the Palestinian cause? Is preparing explosives and targeting tourist resorts support for the Palestinians?” the judge asked.
“Hezbollah’s members rant that they came to Egypt to support the Palestinian cause and they dare to posture against what Egypt has given for the Palestinian people and cause,” he said.
During the trial, prosecutors put on show explosives, including suicide belts, that they said police had seized from the defendants.
Lawyers for Mansur acknowledged he had proposed to carry out attacks against Israeli targets in Egypt in retaliation for the February 2008 assassination in Damascus of Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh.
But the plan had been rejected by the Iranian-backed Shia movement’s leadership in Lebanon.
The defence lawyers said that Mansur had instead admitted to training recruits to carry out attacks but only inside Israel and the Palestinian territories.
An Egyptian newspaper published a transcript of the prosecution’s interrogation of Mansur in which he said Qabalan had trained two men from Gaza on the use of explosives before helping them infiltrate Israel.
Mansur said the two men were arrested in Israel in September 2008.
A security official said the transcript was accurate.
Mansur himself told AFP during a trial break that he and the other defendants had been tortured into confessing, an accusation denied by police.
After the verdict, defence lawyer Abdelmoneim Abdel Maqsud challenged the legitimacy of the court, a special tribunal set up under Egypt’s three-decade-old state of emergency.
“This is a political trial that was taken to a court that offered no guarantee of justice,” he said.
The defendants greeted the verdict with cries of “Allahu Akbar” (God is Greater) but relatives who had gathered outside the court building were more emotive.
“Ibrahim, apple of your mother’s heart, you went for nothing,” screamed the mother of one of those jailed, Ibrahim Essam. “I swear he didn’t do anything.”
Other relatives cried in shock.
The trial reignited a war of words between Egypt, Hezbollah and its Iranian backers.
Egypt, which has no formal diplomatic ties with Iran, accuses Tehran of backing the plot, while Iran and Hezbollah charge that Egypt contrived the case against the men.
Cairo responded angrily to a speech by Nasrallah urging Egyptians to protest and army officers to resign over its refusal to permanently open its border with Gaza during a devastating Israel-Hamas war in December 2008-January 2009.