The policeman convicted of slaying seven Israeli tourists in the Sinai on Oct. 5 was pronounced dead today in his hospital cell, where he was found hanging from the bars of a window, according to the state-run Middle East News Agency.
The official statement did not specify whether Suleiman Khater, 24, had committed suicide, apparently leaving the matter to an autopsy that it said would be performed.
Khater's brother, Abdul-Monaim Khater, and one of the dead policeman's lawyers, Abdel-Halim Ramadan, both questioned how he could have hanged himself under what they said was a heavy guard.
"He has 11 guards in the same room. How can he commit suicide?" asked Ramadan, adding that two days ago Khater had asked his family to bring him a new suit and books to continue his law studies.
"They killed him in the jail," Ramadan charged.
Abdul-Monaim Khater told Reuter, "We think he was murdered by agents with the collusion of the Israeli and Egyptian governments."
Ramadan said he and family members have sent telegrams to President Hosni Mubarak and other officials requesting access to the body for independent medical examination.
The circumstances surrounding Khater's attack on the Israeli tourists and his conviction and sentencing to life imprisonment on Dec. 28 by a military court had become a sensitive domestic issue here and, at one stage, a possible barrier to better relations between Egypt and Israel.
The death of Khater, who had been acclaimed a hero by many foes of Israel here, sparked a rampage in Khater's home village of Ikyad, northeast of Cairo, where crowds set fire to the police station and at least one train car, Reuter reported.
"There will be a lot of feeling from all sides, and interpretations will be at extremes," Mohammed Sayed Ahmed, a leftist political commentator here, said. "He was made a hero. It makes sense that he will be made a martyr."
According to the MENA report, a guard discovered Khater hanging from a rope made of bed linen during a routine check on the inmates of the prison hospital, where Khater was being treated for bilharzia, a parasitic disease that is common in rural Egypt.
Khater attacked the Israeli tourist group in the Sinai, killing four children, two women and a man, four days after the Israeli raid on Palestine Liberation Organization headquarters in Tunisia, in which at least 60 persons were killed.
The Sinai attack was perceived by anti-Israeli groups here as justified because of the Israeli raid, and during student demonstrations and in the opposition press, Khater was called "the hero of the Sinai."
Mubarak had been accused by opposition groups of submitting to Israeli pressure in his handling of the trial, as the government turned down requests to move it to a civilian court.
Israel had insisted on quick and "appropriate" punishment for Khater, and had raised the issue during talks about the disputed Sinai territory of Taba. But Israeli Ambassador Moshe Sasson had expressed satisfaction with the sentence.