The allegations of torture repeated at the Egyptian Army's Supreme Court in the desert east of Cairo are as credible as the protestations of innocence are all-purpose and all-consuming. Ahmed Mohamed smiled bleakly. 'I speak English - good English,' he said. 'I am an educated man. Why am I here?' Around him as he spoke, the prisoners chanted from the Koran and shouted 'Allahu akbar.' So what, I asked the young man, did he feel about Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman, the blind Egyptian imam who supposedly led the el-Gemaat el-Islamiya (the Islamic Group) from his residence in New York?
An older man with a thin, ascetic face leaned towards Mohamed and muttered in his ear. 'I know nothing - I am innocent,' he replied. But I didn't ask if he was innocent. I asked about Sheikh Omar. There was further discussion behind the double layer of iron bars and chain netting. Then Ahmed Mohamed turned towards me again. 'Sheikh Omar is a guide for all Muslims, for all groups of Muslims,' he said slowly. 'He is a spiritual leader for all Muslims.' And the future of Egypt?
Another prisoner pressed himself to the bars of the cage, his nose misshapen by the metal net. 'The Egyptian people will have a Muslim government. They want a Muslim government. The Egyptian people hate the government today and they want Islamic law.' Then another prisoner, tall and bearded, towering over us from within his iron prison. 'Why are we here?' he roared. 'We are Muslims - that is why we are here. We follow the sharia so Mubarak locks us up. Like Sadat.'
President Sadat's shadow is never far away when General Mohamed Wagdi el-Laithi, the Egyptian army's senior legal officer, holds court from his wooden dais at the Haekestap military camp. Flanked by bored, middle-aged colonels and majors, he represents all that the prisoners despise: secular power, Western tradition and absolute determination to see this trial through to the end. General el-Laithi and his men are clean-shaven, impeccable in their khaki uniforms, hair smartly combed, badges of rank glinting on their shoulders. The defence council is made up of bearded Islamists who shuffle towards the dais in unironed black legal robes, in many cases personal friends of the accused.
One of the leading lawyers for the defence, Mamdouh Ismail, admitted to me proudly that he had been accused of involvement in President Sadat's assassination, that he was a personal friend of Sheikh Omar Abdul-Rahman. 'I shared a cell with him after the killing of Sadat,' the bespectacled lawyer told me. 'We were accused together. Khaled al-Islambouly (who shot Sadat dead on 6 October 1981) was in my cell too. Of course I knew him.' It later transpires that Hisham Abdul Zahir, one of the 43 prisoners in the iron cage, was earlier imprisoned for 10 years for his part in the Islamic riots in Assiut that followed Sadat's murder.
In the Haekestap courtroom, therefore, General el-Laithi is the immovable object of President Mubarak's avowedly Muslim but very definitely pro-Western government. The prisoners, chanting and crying behind their bars, are the unstoppable force of pan-Islamic militancy in Egypt. Or so both sides would have you believe. Painted on a blackboard to the right of General el-Laithi is the statement: 'Justice is the basis for ruling.' Which is why, every time the general marches into court, the prisoners cry out, as one: 'Only God can rule.'
The charges read out at the weekend were distinctly secular: that the accused had opened fire on a tourist bus; had opened fire on a tourist boat in the river Nile; had conspired to set off explosives and, the most dangerous accusation of all - because it carries the death penalty - that they planned to overthrow the legitimate government of Egypt. As each charge was read to each of the prisoners, they would shout back at once: 'This did not happen'; 'This is a lie'; 'I wasn't there'. On one occasion the accused replied 'Not guilty' before the charge was read out.
Bags of bloodstained clothing were produced for the defence to examine while Mohamed Hussein, a huge, white-clothed figure hauled from the cage, was ordered to try on a bloody jacket allegedly found in his home. It did not fit. One of the accused claimed - correctly, it seems - that he had been in prison at the time of the crimes. Most said that they had been tortured in custody.
The general promised a full inquiry into each allegation - a hopeless promise if recent human-rights reports on Egyptian prisons are anything to go by - and demanded, with growing impatience, that the trial should proceed. 'Let's stop wasting time,' he barked when Saad Hassanballah, the leading defence council, complained for the umpteenth time that he had not been sent all the relevant files by the military court, that some of his files had missing pages and that many pages had been photocopied dozens of times and inserted instead of the originals. 'We need more time,' he pleaded.
It was a tactic that the general well understood. He insisted that 'it is in your benefit that the trial goes faster - then the sooner the innocent can be set free.' One of the prisoners shouted back: 'Why must we hurry when our lives are at stake?' Indeed, the accused interrupted almost every sentence of the judge, a theatrical refrain that has become part of their delaying tactics as well as the propaganda for their cause.
'I was tortured,' came a shout from the cage. 'I should not be here.' The general pursed his lips with impatience. 'First we have to hear the lawyers,' he replied. 'Then we'll listen to anybody else who has to add anything. The defendant is innocent until proven guilty. The sooner we go through the procedures, the sooner these matters will be resolved.'
But speed, of course, was not what the prisoners wanted at all. 'I would like to make some points,' one of them interrupted. 'Just simple requests about moving us from one prison to another. I am a lawyer called Mustapha Khalil. We have asked to be moved from the civilian prison where we are being tortured to a military prison.' General el-Laithi tried to interrupt in his turn. To no avail.
'The proper procedures must be followed,' the general hissed. 'I have been tortured in Alexandria,' cried yet another. 'I need medical treatment after the torture and they refused it to me.' The prisoner was brought to the dais to display his leg wounds to General el-Laithi. 'I was fishing in a boat on the Nile when they attacked the bus,' a man shouted. 'I was in Sohag hospital when the attacks happened,' came another refrain.
No sooner did the general attempt to continue his reading of the charges than he was beset with more demands - for the return of confiscated prison books and Korans, the return of civilian clothes to the prisoners, the provision of medicine. The defence council observed all this with satisfaction as the general scratched the top of his well-groomed head with a pencil. 'Don't talk until we give you permission,' General el-Laithi eventually bawled back, to be met by a barrage of Koranic chants.
But the general was about to score a point. He produced five videotapes, all made by Egyptian television at the first sitting of the court, in which several named prisoners - happy for publicity - called for the overthrow of the government. 'These tapes will now be used as evidence against the accused,' the general announced bleakly.
There was silence in court. Then military policemen led in seven peasants from upper Egypt, still in their fellahin (peasant) robes and turbans, along with a woman cowled in black. 'These are witnesses,' the general proclaimed as the eight figures cowered under the hostile gaze of the defendants. The prisoners should have been frightened but it was the witnesses who appeared doomed. How long, after all, would witnesses be allowed to survive if they betrayed the el-Gemaat el-Islamiya?
The hearing, as they say, continues.
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