CAIRO — An Egyptian court Wednesday convicted 26 men of spying for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah and planning terrorist attacks in Egypt, handing down prison terms ranging from 25 years to six months.
The trial — commonly referred to as the "Hezbollah cell trial" — involved two Lebanese, five Palestinians, a Sudanese and 18 Egyptians. It was held in the heavily guarded State Security Emergency court whose verdict can be reversed only by a presidential pardon.
The charges against the group included: plotting attacks against tourists; targeting vessels crossing the Suez Canal; spying; training agents; building explosive belts and devices; and smuggling weapons to the Islamist Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip.
Attorneys for the defendants said the charges were politically motivated.
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The outcome of the trial could aggravate the already strained relations between Egypt, a Sunni nation and key U.S. ally in the region, and the Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Syria and Iran.
Three of the accused, including the group's Lebanese leader Mohammed Qiblan, received life sentences in absentia.
Presiding Judge Adel Abdelsalam Gomaa said the investigations showed the group had been planning operations with the aim of "hurting Egypt's economy, shredding the bonds between its people and spreading chaos," he read from the charges list.
"God is great. God will avenge us," the defendants roared from the dock, rattling at the prisoners' cage and climbing on it as soon as the judge read the verdict in a packed Cairo courtroom.
Outside the courthouse, family members wept on hearing the prison sentences, slapping their faces and screaming out their relatives' names.
"This is an oppressive government, they've already been tortured and humiliated for the past two years," said Sherin Ali, 36. Her husband Mohammed Shalabi, a fisherman, was given 10 years in prison. "His kids have been made homeless, there is not a penny at home," she sobbed.
In April 2009, Egypt's security apparatus said it had uncovered a cell belonging to Hezbollah and accused its members of planning to disrupt the country's safety and stability.
At the time, Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, admitted he'd sent one of the defendants, Mohamed Mansour, also known as Samy Shehab, to facilitate delivery of weapons into the Palestinian-inhabited Gaza Strip. Nasrallah, as well as the defendants, denied they had planned any attacks against Egypt.
Three of the accused were also charged with digging smuggling-tunnels under their homes into Gaza, and with harboring militants.
"These are very harsh sentences. Nothing in the evidence found supports these charges" said Shehab's lawyer Essam Sultan. "They were only trying to help the people of Gaza, sending foodstuff and weapons to help them," Sultan added. Shehab was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Sultan said the defense strategy had cited historical examples, such as the French occupation of Algeria, where Egypt sent weapon shipments to Algerian rebels.
Nasrallah has angered the Egyptian regime before, when he accused it of supporting Israel's attack against the impoverished Gaza Strip last year. Observers said Hezbollah had crossed a line by forming a cell in Egypt.
"This is a sovereign country with rules and laws that have to be respected," said Amr al-Shobaki, a researcher at the semi-official think tank Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, and an expert on Islamist movements.
"The message of this trial is that Egypt will not allow any playing behind its back, even to support a Palestinian resistance group. There has to be cooperation with the Egyptian security apparatus," said Hassan Nafaa, a political science professor at Cairo University. "This is a red line," he added
However, Nafaa said that at the beginning of this trial, tensions had been soaring between Egypt and Iran, whose diplomatic ties have been severed since the Iranian revolution 31 years ago.
Now, with the Arab-Israeli peace process at a standstill, and a rightist government in Israel, relations between Egypt and Iran may be thawing, Nafaa said.
His theory may prove correct, as Egypt's foreign minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit recently flew to Lebanon to express Egypt's solidarity in case Israel attacks again.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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