Egypt's biggest clamp-down on Islamic extremism in four years reached new heights yesterday as the trial of 94 alleged militant Islamists opened.
The defendants' lawyers complained that the prosecutors had changed the charges at the last minute and had made them far more serious in the aftermath of 11 September.
A charge sheet filed by a military prosecutor in court before the trial listed plans to assassinate public figures and sabotage government installations, and arms possession.
Although Egyptian officials have not specifically linked the accused to Osama bin Laden or al-Qa'ida, prosecutors allege that 10 of them received military training abroad, including in Afghanistan. They include several non-Egyptians; three men are from Dagestan, the Russian republic bordering Chechnya, and one is Yemeni.
Since 11 September, President Hosni Mubarak has cracked down on Islamic militants. Several hundred people have been arrested, including some from the Muslim Brotherhood, which is officially outlawed but includes 17 members of the Egyptian parliament.
Human rights activists have accused the President of using the US-led "campaign against terror" as a pretext to suppress domestic political enemies. They argue that such harsh treatment only fuels militancy. The authorities have also been criticised for trying such cases in military – rather than civilian – courts under emergency laws introduced after President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. There is no right of appeal.
Although almost all of the 94 in court yesterday have been in custody since May (seven are being tried in absentia), claims were made yesterday that the charges against them had abruptly become more serious after 11 September. They were initially accused of collecting funds for the Palestinian intifada and for Chechnya.
Hisham Diab, 41, a Dutch-Egyptian defendant, said: "They [the authorities] were about to let us go but after 11 September they turned it into a military trial. We have nothing to do with al-Qa'ida. This is to please the Americans."
The defendants are accused of being members of a previously unknown group, al-Wa'ad [the Promise], led by a group of Muslim clerics from Cairo, including two now on trial. Outside the court in Cairo yesterday, angry relatives denounced the case as unjust and insisted the accused were not terrorists.
* A judge in Spain has accused eight suspected Islamic terrorists of playing a role in the 11 September attacks and has jailed them while a case is prepared against them. Officials said this could take years.
Judge Baltasar Garzon said the eight "were directly linked to the preparation and carrying out of the attacks perpetrated by suicide pilots" in the US.