An Egyptian policeman who murdered seven Israeli tourists in the Sinai resort town of Ras Bourka on Oct. 5 was sentenced today to life in prison with hard labor by an Egyptian military court.
The incident, whose victims included four children and two women, had been a point of contention between Egypt and Israel, which requested quick and appropriate punishment for Suleiman Khatir, the convicted murderer.
It has also become a heated political issue in Egypt, where student demonstrations and the opposition press proclaimed support for the 24-year-old defendant and accused Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak of bending to Israeli pressure in his handling of the trial.
Students demonstrated Friday at Al-Azhar University, Egypt's premier Islamic institution, and during the past week demonstrations were held in the delta town of Zagazig, where Khatir went to school. Several arrests were reported at both places.
Israeli Ambassador Moshe Sasson said today he had not yet received written confirmation of the verdict, but added, "I have full confidence in Egyptian justice." He said that Israel had been promised and expected the official Egyptian report on the incident now that the trial is complete.
Earlier in the month, according to senior Egyptian officials, Israel had privately injected the issue of the Ras Bourka incident into sensitive negotiations over a disputed stretch of Sinai beach front at Taba on the Egyptian-Israeli border.
As the most recent round of Taba negotiations began here, Egyptian government officials were criticizing Israel for its Oct. 1 raid on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia, and the Israelis were responding with accusations about Egypt's handling of the Ras Bourka incident, which occurred four days later.
Egypt had suspended the Taba talks in October as a result of the Tunis raid.
There were reports from Israel immediately following the Sinai killings that Egyptian police had denied medical aid to the injured and delayed their evacuation to the hospital. Israel was also concerned that Khatir was a soldier -- not a policeman -- using an automatic weapon in an area where Egyptian soldiers and automatic weapons are prohibited under the terms of the 1979 peace treaty.
Egyptian authorities have described Khatir as a "police conscript" serving in a special border patrol unit.
Underscoring the point that Khatir was not a member of the military, the Egyptian opposition -- both Islamic and leftist -- had been pressing the government to move the trial to a civilian court where Khatir was expected to get a more sympathetic hearing. But the government refused, and because the trial was closed to the public the full details have not been released.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said at the time of the incident that it was the deed of a madman, "a matter that can happen anywhere."
But Mubarak's political opponents have used the incident in an attempt to stir up latent frustration and anger toward Israel, and have sometimes proclaimed Khatir the "hero of the Sinai."
Reuter reported that Kuwait's National Assembly released a statement today asking Egypt to free Khatir immediately and honor him as a hero because he had "restored to the Arab people some of its dignity."
[The statement added: "While Israel kills innocent people in occupied countries and elsewhere . . . the Egyptian regime has put on trial the hero Khatir."]
Some opposition figures have portrayed the Ras Bourka killings as justified revenge for the Israeli raid on Tunis. Others have portrayed Khatir as an innocent policeman defending his country. His lawyers were reported earlier this month to have claimed Nidal was following orders to prevent anyone of any nationality from entering the zone he was guarding.
Opposition press reports have claimed that Khatir warned the Israelis not to enter the area, that one of the Israelis spat on the Egyptian flag and that the Israeli women were dressed "indecently."
But Israeli eyewitnesses to the scene said Khatir opened fire without cause from his post overlooking sand dunes where the vacationers were climbing and playing.