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EGYPT: Members of 'Hezbollah cell' receive prison sentences

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Twenty-six men suspected of belonging to Lebanon's Shiite militant organization, Hezbollah, were sentenced to jail Wednesday after they were found guilty of conspiracy and terrorism by Egypt's supreme state security court on Wednesday.

Four of the accused, who remain at large, were sentenced in absentia to life in prison, including Mohamed Kablan, a Lebanese believed to be the mastermind behind what Egyptian authorities claim was a Hezbollah network plotting attacks on foreign and domestic targets across the nation. 

Three defendants were sentenced 15 years in prison; others received terms ranging between six months and 10 years. The Egyptian prosecutor had demanded the death penalty for six of the defendants, calling them "traitors" who formed a terrorist cell on behalf of Hezbollah. 

Eighteen Egyptians, five Palestinians, two Lebanese and a Sudanese were captured by Egyptian authorities in a series of operations that began in November 2008. They were indicted on charges of conspiring with Hezbollah to attack Israeli tourists in Egypt, bomb ships in the Suez Canal and build tunnels to smuggle weapons to the Gaza Strip.

Some of the accused admitted planning attacks against Israeli tourists, but later recanted, saying they were instead only working to aid Palestinians in Gaza. The trial, which was drawn out over six months, was marred by accusations from defense lawyers that their clients had been tortured during interrogations. Lawyers criticized the government for referring the case to a state security court rather than a regular criminal court.

"It was harsh verdict issued by a political court that guarantees no justice," Abdul Monem Abdul Maksoud, a defense lawyer, said after the hearing. 

The case has agitated relations between Egypt and Hezbollah, which Cairo regards as working with Iran to create regional instability. The government of President Hosni Mubarak was outraged in 2009 when Hezbollah's general secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, criticized Egypt for aiding Israel in its siege on the Gaza Strip.   

The attacks planned by the defendants "came from another country that wants to seize its control over the Arab and Islamic world, and Hezbollah is just a tool for executing this foreign country's mean interests," prosecutor Amr Farouk said during a court hearing in January, referring to Iran.

Issued by a state security court -- set up under Egypt's emergency rules, which have been in effect since 1981 -- Wednesday's verdicts cannot be appealed.

-- Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: The convicts during a hearing in August. Credit: Agence France-Presse

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