Mubarak Rival Loses Freedom Bid

By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, May 19, 2006

CAIRO, May 18 -- An appeals court on Thursday upheld the fraud conviction of Ayman Nour, the candidate who challenged President Hosni Mubarak and his 25 years of one-man rule in elections last year, effectively consigning the fiery lawyer to five years in prison.

Nour was convicted in December of forging documents needed to legalize his Tomorrow Party, even though a government commission had approved the papers in October 2004 and a witness at his trial said he was tortured into testifying against Nour. The case attracted criticism from human rights groups as being politically motivated, and the State Department made the case a test of Mubarak's commitment to democracy.

Egyptian police and prosecutors have recently launched an offensive against democracy activists on several fronts. At the same time a judge heard Nour's request for a retrial Thursday, a judicial committee reprimanded Judge Hesham Bastawisi for denouncing vote-rigging during elections last year but acquitted a less outspoken but nonetheless critical magistrate, Mahmoud Mekky.

Thousands of riot police in body armor and helmets sealed off parts of central Cairo to keep demonstrators from congregating near the courthouse where the hearings for Nour and the judges took place. At a nearby market, police pursued, clubbed and beat demonstrators gathered to support the judges. They arrested about 250 protesters, mostly members of the formally banned Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic political and social organization that has emerged as Egypt's only large and well-organized opposition force.

Police and plainclothes security agents also intercepted dozens of Nour supporters as they tried to march on Tomorrow Party headquarters in downtown's Talat Harb Square. Several were beaten.

"The charade is over," said Samer S. Shehata, a professor of contemporary Arab studies at Georgetown University who is researching elections in Egypt. "Egypt is going back to an earlier period of repression."

"Political reform is dead," remarked Joshua Stracher, a researcher from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States was "deeply troubled" by Nour's case, calling it "both a miscarriage of justice by international standards and a setback for the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people."

"Both Mr. Nour's ongoing detention and the Egyptian government's handling of dissent raise serious concerns about the path to political reform and democracy in Egypt and are incongruous with the Egyptian government's professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society," McCormack said.

Nour finished a distant second in Egypt's first multiparty presidential election last September and incurred the wrath of officials by claiming fraud. His campaign, though it attracted only about 7 percent of the vote, was notable for its energetic effort to reach large numbers of Egyptians. The government occasionally sent out police and provocateurs to block Nour from reaching rallies in the countryside. Now, he will sit out his sentence in prison, where he has been tasked with carving frames for calendars as part of a labor regimen.

"It's shocking," Nour's wife, Gamila Ismael, told reporters after the verdict. "I hope God gives patience for what he is in for now, which is total injustice. This verdict proves for the thousandth time that Mubarak and his regime are controlling the judicial, executive and legislative authorities in Egypt, bodies whose independence Nour was fighting for."

The judges, meanwhile, had been under official attack for alleging fraud in presidential and parliamentary elections. Bastawisi was recovering in a Cairo hospital from a heart attack suffered the previous day, after weeks of leading sit-ins at a magistrates club downtown. The judicial commission said he would be removed from the bench if he continued with alleged misbehavior that included insulting fellow judges, some of whom cooperated with the government in monitoring elections.

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