- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 24, 2005

CAIRO — An Egyptian court sentenced a top opposition leader to five years in prison yesterday for forging petition signatures in a verdict that drew a sharp rebuke from the United States.

Ayman Nour, who came in a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak in the country’s first contested presidential elections earlier this year, said the government invented the forgery charge to eliminate him from politics.

The White House said yesterday that the conviction “calls into question Egypt’s commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law.”

The United States was “deeply troubled” by the conviction and called on Egypt to release Mr. Nour, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Mr. Nour’s Al-Ghad party issued a statement saying yesterday’s verdict was “a matter of settling of the accounts of the presidential elections.”

“The verdict had been issued long time ago, and it did not come from the court but from the regime which has destroyed political life for many decades,” Al-Ghad said.

Mr. Nour, whose chief lawyer promised an appeal, was ordered detained earlier this month ahead of the verdict. He has been on a hunger strike for two weeks, was moved to a hospital a week ago and looked pale in court yesterday.

“This is a political verdict that will be annulled by the appeals court,” attorney Amir Salem said. “This verdict will go into the dustbin of history.”

He said he would appeal to Egypt’s highest appeals panel, the Court of Cassation.

Outside, about 500 Nour supporters chanted “Hosni Mubarak’s rule is illegal,” and “The trial is illegal.” They were barred from the court building by hundreds of riot police, who had closed off the street.

Judge Abdel Salam Gomaa issued a written judgment after the sentence denying that the trial was politically motivated.

Mr. Nour had pleaded not guilty to ordering the forgery of signatures needed to register his opposition party last year. Six co-defendants who testified against him during the trial also were convicted yesterday and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

One of the co-defendants had recanted his testimony against Mr. Nour early in the trial, saying security agents threatened his family to turn him against the politician.

Mr. Nour’s conviction was a setback to a U.S. policy encouraging democratic reform in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned visit to Egypt to protest Mr. Nour’s Jan. 29 arrest.

When Mr. Nour was released on bail and allowed to compete in the presidential election, Miss Rice came to Cairo.

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