Jailed Egyptian candidate denies forgery

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An opposition leader who plans to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt's first multi-candidate elections denied forgery accusations at a trial which he denounced as politically motivated.

Hundreds of supporters of Ayman Nour, the leader of the Al Ghad (Tomorrow) party, were jostled by police around the court building in Cairo in a chaotic start to the trial which could end his presidential bid. It took Mr Nour, a 40-year old lawyer, more than an hour before he could get into court, where he entered his not- guilty plea from inside a cage. "They think that putting me in this cage will negatively effect me in the election campaign," Mr Nour said. "I tell them the price of my entering this cage will be success in the presidential elections."

Mr Nour, who was elected as parliament's youngest MP in 1995, is accused of forging signatures on his opposition party's registration documents last year. If convicted, he would lose his right to run for office and could face a prison term of up to 15 years. The trial was adjourned until tomorrow after a rowdy exchange between lawyers for Mr Nour and those of six other co-defendants, two of whom said they forged signatures on Mr Nour's orders. But the Al Ghad leader says he has never met five of the co-defendants, and accuses the government of framing him.

He came to national prominence in January, when the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, urged Egyptian authorities to release him from jail as the Bush administration began openly pressing Mr Mubarak to hold free and fair elections. Mr Nour, who was jailed for questioning about the forgery allegations, was released in March after 43 days in prison. Mr Nour met Ms Rice in Cairo last week, and US diplomats are attending his trial as observers.

Mr Nour, a soft-spoken intellectual who describes himself as a moderate liberal, is taking advantage of President Mubarak's intention to allow more than a single candidate in the September elections.

He believes Egypt is at a critical period in its history, thanks to Mr Mubarak's tightly controlled move towards democracy. But if the the 77-year-old President runs, he is widely expected to win a fifth six-year term.