x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Charges filed against alleged Hizbollah cell

Lawyers for the 26 men accused of spying and plotting attacks on tourists say the case against their clients is politically motivated.

Some of the accused have also been charged with digging tunnels under Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip to smuggle people and goods.
Some of the accused have also been charged with digging tunnels under Egypt's border with the Gaza Strip to smuggle people and goods.

CAIRO // Egypt's prosecutor general has charged 26 suspects with spying for Hizbollah and plotting terrorist attacks against tourists in Egypt. Abdel-Meguid Mahmoud referred the suspects - two Lebanese, five Palestinians, a Sudanese and 18 Egyptians - to stand trial in the State Security Emergency Court, a special tribunal where trials are swift and verdicts cannot be appealed.

"This court lacks one of the main guarantees of justice, which is the right to appeal the verdicts," said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, one of the lawyers for the defendants. "Even if they are found innocent, the military leader [the president or the prime minister] has the right to appeal it and send it back to court, so they are doomed either way," he said. State security courts were set up under Egypt's emergency laws in 1981 and their verdicts are final.

The date of the trial has not been set. Egypt announced in April that it had uncovered a plot by 49 men with alleged links to Hizbollah to destabilise the country by carrying out attacks on Egyptian institutions and Israeli tourists. Most of the defendants have been in custody since November. Four suspects are still at large, including Mohammed Qabalan, who police say was a leading Hizbollah member who was in charge of the cell and had been giving them their instructions and money. Police records allegedly show Mr Qabalan disbursed US$38,000 (Dh140,000) to Egyptian operatives, largely to buy explosives.

Since April, the Egyptian authorities have been saying that the defendants would be transferred to trial in a matter of days, but this only happened on Sunday. "It's a strange timing," said Montasser el Zayat, the other Egyptian lawyer in the case. "We don't know what kept them so long before referring it to the judiciary, but I have been saying since the beginning that the case is political. The accusations are very serious," he added.

The charges include conspiracy to murder, spying for a foreign organisation with the intent of conducting terrorist attacks, and weapons possession, Mr Mahmoud said in a statement published on Mena, Egypt's official news agency. Spying for an enemy state is punishable by death. "The defence team, despite its objection and reservations on the charges, would continue to defend the suspects and to prove their innocence despite the circumstances surrounding the case which is represented by Egyptian-Iranian tensions, targeting Palestinian resistance via pressuring Hamas and anyone who lent a helping hand to them," said a joint statement by Mr Abdel Maqsoud and Mr el Zayat yesterday.

Hassan Nasrallah, Hizbollah's leader, has repeatedly denied accusations of intending to harm Egypt's security, but has admitted to sending an agent to supervise weapon shipments to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The arrests led to a bitter exchange between Sunni Egypt and Hizbollah's Shiite Iranian backers. The Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul Gheit, accused Iran of using Hizbollah to gain a foothold in Egypt.

"The timings and the political aspects in the case can't be overlooked," said Khalil al Anani, a Cairo-based expert on Islamic groups and a fellow with the Al Ahram Foundation, a research centre affiliated with Al Ahram, Egypt's main state-owned newspaper. "Since Egypt decided to break the news about the cell in April, it has been sending very stern messages to Hizbollah, Iran and their supporters, like Hamas, that what happened during the Gaza war is not to go without punishment," he added.

"The regime has been leading a comprehensive campaign to tarnish Hizbollah and Iran's image among Egyptians and Arabs, and emphasising that targeting the Egyptian regime, not people, is a red line and will never be taken lightly," Mr al Anani said. Egypt and Hizbollah have been at odds since the three-week war in the Gaza Strip in December and January, in which the latter accused Egypt of collaborating with Israel by closing its Rafah border crossing, Gaza's sole gateway that bypasses Israel.

At least three of the suspects were also charged with digging tunnels under Egypt's border with Gaza with the intention of smuggling people and goods. Others are charged with providing safe houses for militants smuggled across the border. This is the first time Egypt has charged people involved in the smuggling trade with Gaza. Israel has long complained that Egypt is not doing enough to stop weapons and people smuggling through the tunnels.

Egypt's state security prosecutors also accused five members of its own outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group of belonging to the Hizbollah cell. The Brotherhood has expressed support for Hizbollah, saying it is the duty of Muslims to help the Palestinians fight Israel. The alleged plot was one of three that Egyptian security services say they have disrupted since February. More than 300 Shiite Muslims were arrested last month, and are believed to still be in the custody of Egyptian security forces.

Another cell, called the Zatoun cell, which is said to have connections with al Qa'eda, was arrested recently and accused of killing four Christian gold shop owners during a robbery last year. "Things are very confused, vague and very tense," Mr el Zayat said about the recent arrests. "Which again reinforces the security mentality and hegemony on decision making in Egypt." nmagd@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse