Eight men freed in one more milestone for Egypt's Islamists
Simply being an Islamist in Hosni Mubarak's Egypt was often enough to guarantee a jail sentence. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, reports Bradley Hope, Foreign Correspondent
CAIRO // Just two days after Mohammed Al Zawahiri stepped out of jail last March after 13 years behind bars, state security officers arrived at his home in Cairo and re-arrested him.
It seemed particularly cruel, yet in one sense the younger brother of the Al Qaeda chief Ayman Al Zawahiri was fortunate this time – he received a semblance of due process. For five of his previous 13 years in detention, from 1999 to 2004, he had seemed to disappear.
Al Zawahiri was imprisoned in secret and without charges, and his family found out he was alive only when the CIA sought a sample of his DNA to determine whether a corpse recovered in Afghanistan was that of his brother.
When he was arrested again last year, authorities charged him with “committing terrorist crimes, harming national security and planning to overthrow the state” in connection with Islamist-led attacks against civilians and the Egyptian government in the 1990s.
On Monday, an Egyptian military court cleared Al Zawahiri, 60, and seven others of the charges, which carried the death sentence.
The acquittals mark yet another important milestone in the emergence of Islamists in post-Mubarak Egypt.
After their success in parliamentary elections, Islamists are the single most influential force in Egyptian politics.
With Monday’s verdict, what many Egyptians view as a long-overdue legal reckoning has now begun for the Mubarak regime’s decades of brutal repression of Islamist groups – in particular, the use of special security courts and the extra-legal coordination with foreign governments to return Islamists to Egypt through “extraordinary renditions”.
“I am so happy,” said Al Zawahiri’s son, Abdul Rahman Al Zawahiri, 28. “This is the first time we have seen justice in 13 years. The innocent verdict came so late, but in the end it was God’s victory.”
Not everyone, however, views this effort to redress past wrongs as wholly positive. Ali Soufan, a former FBI special agent, says it may result in returning to the region some of Egypt’s most violent extremists, and describes some of the acquittals as “disconcerting”.
But Nizar Ghurab, a lawyer on the defence team, said Islamists who have renounced violence were obtaining justice for the first time.
“These were political opponents of the old regime, not criminals or terrorists,” Mr Ghurab said. “Their case shows they were prosecuted without any regard for the law or their rights. They were tortured for opposing the corruption of Sadat and Mubarak.”
Among those acquitted was Mohamed Shawki Islamboli, whose brother Khaled, an Egyptian military officer, was convicted of the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and executed by a firing squad. Said Imam Fadl, a religious leader and author of texts used by jihadists in Afghanistan, was also found not guilty.
The acquittals are just the latest example of Egyptian authorities attempting, in the post-Mubarak era, to balance the scales of justice.
In the months after Mubarak was forced from office on February 11, 2011, a total of 2,000 Islamists were released as part of a decision by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf) to free prisoners who had served half their sentence or who were still being held after their sentence was completed.
Many of those let out of jail were convicted at the 1999 showcase trial of the “Returnees from Albania” – so-called because some of the accused who were rendered back to Egypt, with the help of the CIA, came from or transited through Albania. Of the 107 on trial, 20 were acquitted, nine sentenced to death, 11 given life imprisonment and 67 given 25-year prison sentences.
Although his membership of an Islamist organisation has never been established, Al Zawahiri, who was tried in his absence, was one.
Mr Soufan, who played a lead role in investigations into some of the most prominent cases involving Islamist extremists in the 1990s and early 2000s, said evidence connected some of the men acquitted on Monday to violence and “international terrorism”.
“Some of the people involved in the ‘Returnees of Albania’ case were involved in blowing up the American embassies in East Africa,” he said from his office in Doha. “It’s disconcerting to see these people released. Ayman Al Zawahiri is still declaring war on the US. Do we release his brother? Can we guarantee he won’t join him?”
While working at the FBI, Mr Soufan said he unearthed documents and correspondence that described the “importance” of Mohammed Al Zawahiri to Islamic Jihad in Egypt and said he was the “right-hand man” of his brother, Ayman.
But human-rights lawyers say that the measures taken by the US and the Mubarak regime against Islamists, such as Mohammed Al Zawahiri, were draconian and represent a short-sighted approach to security by the US and its allies, especially after 9/11.
“This brings us to the question of the entire US security policy and the abandonment of the rule of law,” said Baher Azmy, who has defended detainees in Guantanamo Bay and is director of the Centre for Constitutional Rights in New York. “We favoured extreme measure that presumably were necessary for our security. The result is we agitated a population that we ultimately want to convince shouldn’t be agitated at us.”
The irony – and perhaps tragedy – of Mohammed Al Zawahiri is that, if not for his brother’s connection to Al Qaeda, national intelligence agencies working together to corral suspected terrorists might never have bothered with him, and he might never have spent a day in jail.
Born into a family of seven and raised on a modest street in the neighbourhood of Maadi, he trained to be an architect, while Ayman became a doctor. The brothers were close, but Mohammed’s role in his brother’s growing extremism – if any – has never been fully disclosed.
What is clear is that the brothers lived in the same cities up until the late 1990s.
Ayman left Saudi Arabia in 1986 for Pakistan and later Sudan, where he had begun working closely with Osama bin Laden. Mohammed moved first to Yemen and then followed his brother to Pakistan and Sudan.
In the 1990s, the two separated and Mohammed went to work in the UAE for the charity World Islamic Relief. In 1999 he was arrested by the security services and after several months transferred to Egypt.
When he disappeared, the family feared he had been killed. They realised he had been seized only when his bank account was emptied and possessions disappeared from an apartment in Sharjah.
The family returned to Egypt nine months later, after losing hope he would resurface. That changed with the reports in 2004 of the CIA’s search for Al Zawahiri’s DNA.
“My father was is in prison just for being the brother of Ayman Al Zawahiri,” Abdul Rahman said. “He has suffered a lot. He has many illnesses now. He can barely see, his joints hurt.”
Abdul Rahman recalled visiting his father in jail as the Egyptian uprising was gaining momentum against Mubarak last year.
“He was praying to God that they gain victory,” he said. “He hoped his chance was coming.”
For Islamists in Egypt, it has.
This is part one of a three-part series on Islamists Rising in Egypt. Thursday - Once-banned Islamist groups move into politics and on Friday - The troubled path from violence to peaceful change
Updated: March 21, 2012 04:00 AM