Defender for group accused of planning attacks on Egypt says the country's political climate will make his job an uphill struggle.
Hizbollah and Egypt continue the war of words
CAIRO // As the war of words between Egypt and Hizbollah continues over a purported militant cell who are accused of planning terrorist attacks in Egypt, defence lawyers for the group say they are concerned that their clients could be deprived of a fair trial. "I'm concerned after hearing President Hosni Mubarak's speech on Wednesday, in which he again warned 'those who threaten national security' that he will issue a decree sending them to a military court, where there will be no fair trial, no rights for the defendants or their defence," one of the group's lawyers, Montasser al Zayat, said in an interview.
"In military trials they follow the motto of: 'You say what you want, we rule as we please'." Mr al Zayat, who has been defending Islamic militants since before military trials were introduced in 1992, said his clients could face the death penalty, judging by the charges that had been levelled against them by official prosecutors - forming an illegal group, attempting to overthrow the Egyptian regime, planning terrorist attacks and targeting tourists.
There is no appeal in military trials, only a plea to the president, who is the head of the armed forces. Egypt announced last month 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. Twenty-eight of the accused remain at large. The defendants, Mr al Zayat said, claim they were working to help Palestinians in the Gaza Strip by providing them weapons and supplies of food and medicine, but were not planning any attacks in Egypt. They also admitted to watching Israeli tourists in Sinai and ships in the Suez Canal since the killing of Imad Mughniyeh, a Hizbollah operative, in Damascus last year, that Hizbollah believes to be the work of Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.
"But after a while they were ordered [by Hizbollah] to stop doing that, which they did, which is legally known as voluntary change of mind, which is not punishable by law," Mr al Zayat said. The lawyer is representing Sami Chehab, 41, a Lebanese national and the main defendant, along with 20 others, most of them Egyptians who were arrested in November and December. Although the defendants have been in custody since their arrests, the case against them was only made public last month and formal charges by prosecutors against them are expected to be announced this week.
"I'm pessimistic about the prevalent political atmosphere in Egypt especially after the tough tone in President Mubarak's speech," said Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, another lawyer for the defence team. "Most likely they will stand a military trial." Mr Mubarak said in a Labour Day speech last week a foreign group was threatening Egyptian security. "After these powers and their hirelings have encroached on Egypt's security and sovereignty. I say clearly that I don't allow this and will not tolerate those who try to tamper with Egypt's security and stability," he said, reiterating remarks he had made in a speech days earlier.
Mr Mubarak's words on Wednesday were his strongest warning since Egypt accused Hizbollah of plotting attacks on its soil, and have been widely interpreted as message to the Lebanese Shiite group's Iranian and Syrian backers. Last month, Egypt summoned Iran's chief diplomat in Cairo to deliver a "strong protest" against Iranian officials' comments criticising Egypt's accusations against Hizbollah. In a televised address on Friday, Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, accused Egypt of "waging a war" on his group.
"The crisis with Egypt, which erupted three weeks ago, began with a media campaign by the Egyptian regime - aided by other elements in the Arab world. Today we are witnessing a media war and a political war being waged by one side - the Egyptian regime. " He rejected Egypt's allegations over the terrorist cell: "We did not organise things in Egypt; we did not harm its security or police or its stability. Everything is to help the Palestinian resistance.
"What has the Egyptian regime gained from its campaign against Hizbollah?" he said. "The Egyptian regime has not gained anything from this campaign. They failed to tarnish the face of Hizbollah." Egypt and Hizbollah have been at odds since the three-week war in the Gaza Strip, in which the latter accused Egypt of collaborating with Israel by closing its Rafah border crossing, Gaza's sole gateway that bypasses Israel.
Mr al Zayat said the war and the current trial are linked. "There are lots of question marks in this case," Mr al Zayat said. "Most of the defendants have been arrested since November, and they have been operating in Egypt since 2002, so why reveal the case only last month, and this endless campaign against Hizbollah? It's very clear that this is related to Nasrallah's criticism of Egypt during the Gaza war."
Mr al Zayat said he has not been allowed to meet the defendants without the presence of Egyptian officials, so he does not know whether they had been tortured. "But from experience, when you are detained in an undisclosed state security location for months, and in such a serious case, most probably they were not joking with or tickling the defendants." Mr al Zayat said many of the defendants, in their confessions, said a man named Mohammed Qabalan, a leading Hizbollah member, was in charge of the cell and had been giving them their instructions
The Egyptian prosecution team is currently gathering more information on the man. Mr al Zayat added that the names of Mr Nasrallah and his deputy, Naim Qassem, are not mentioned in the official investigations, so they will not be summoned to stand trial, Some Egyptian officials and media have called for Mr Nasrallah to be put on trial, because as Hizbollah's leader he bears ultimate responsibility for the group.