CAIRO // Twenty-two members of a Hizbollah terrorist cell were beginning jail sentences last night after being convicted of plotting to blow up ships in the Suez canal and attack tourist sites in Egypt. Four other members of the cell are on the run, including its Lebanese head, Mohammed Qabalan. Three were given life sentences in their absence, and the fourth received a lesser term. The 22 who were in court, including the senior Hizbollah commander Mohammed Yusef Mansur, received jail terms of between six months and 15 years.
When the verdicts were read out the men, confined to a large cage and wearing prison jumpsuits, shouted: "God is Great", "God is going to avenge us", "Death for God's sake", "Jerusalem and Palestine are Arab and Islamic" and "Salute to Gaza's steadfastness". They then pointed at the three judges and shouted: "Shame on you", and "You are Israeli government". Scores of relatives of the men, mainly women, were not allowed inside the courtroom, which had been under tight security since the early hours of the morning.
Most of the men were arrested between late 2008 and January 2009. The Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah admitted after the arrests were made public in April that he had sent Mansur, alias Sami Shihab, to Egypt to support Palestinian militants in Gaza. He said the cell comprised no more than 10 people and denied that they planned attacks in Egypt. The convicted men said in a handwritten letter to the court that they had never planned attacks in Egypt but had tried to help the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers, who have close ties with Hizbollah.
But Judge Adel Abdul Salam Gomaa ruled that the men 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. "Hizbollah'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."
During the trial, prosecutors produced explosives, including suicide belts, that they said police had seized from the men. Lawyers for Mansur admitted that he had proposed to carry out attacks against Israeli targets in Egypt in retaliation for the February 2008 assassination in Damascus of the Hizbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, but said the plan had been rejected by the Iranian-backed Shiite movement's leadership in Lebanon.
The defence lawyers said 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. Mansur himself said during a break in the trial 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. Outside the courtroom, relatives of the men cried and shouted in support. One woman could be seen crying out and slapping her face.
Salma Suleiman, 73, the mother of Shahin Mohamed Shahin said her son had not been involved in militancy. "He had nothing to do with these operations or this group. This is all utterly unfair. He has four children. Let them all be happy now, his excellency the president [Hosni Mubarak] and Israel and America." The wife of Hany al Sayed Mutlaq, who was there with their two young children, said: "I want to know why they took him? They found nothing in our house when they searched. They took him in the middle of the night. They humiliated me."
The trial reignited a war of words between Egypt, Hizbollah and its Iranian backers. Egypt, which maintains no formal diplomatic ties with Iran, accuses Tehran of backing the plot, while Iran and Hizbollah charge that Egypt had contrived the case against the men. email@example.com * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse