The Associated Press - Published: December 16, 2007
Egypt's military tribunal on Sunday dropped charges of terrorism and money laundering against 40 senior members of Muslim Brotherhood arrested a year ago, judicial officials and the group's lawyer said.
The arrest of business man Khayrat el-Shater, the movement's number three figure, and 39 others last December kicked off a wide-ranging crackdown on the organization detaining more than 3,000 members and going after its financial support network.
"The military court dropped charges of money laundering and terrorism," said a judicial official speaking on customary condition of anonymity as he's not authorized to talk to the media.
"But the court kept the charges of belonging to a banned group and managing companies on behalf of the organization for businessmen Khayrat el-Shater and Hassan Malek," added the official.
Their trial was ordered moved to a military tribunal in February after a civilian court dropped the charges against them due to lack of evidence. The hearings have been closed to media with only a few close relatives allowed to attend the proceedings at Haykstep military base on Cairo's outskirts.
"We were surprised by the sudden dropping of these charges," the group's lawyer Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud told the Associated Press Sunday.
"It indicates the court might issue lighter sentences, but we shouldn't forget that the whole case is political, so the verdicts will largely depend on what is happening at the time when they are issued," he added.
Belonging to a banned group could lead to up to five years in prison, while the charges of terrorism and money laundering would have resulted up to 15 years behind bars.
The defendants have denied the terrorism and money laundering charges since their arrest.
"A year has passed while we remain unjustly behind bars," said the defendants in a statement issued Saturday on the anniversary of their arrest.
"Our only crime is demanding reform and standing up to despotism, corruption and siding with the people and their interests," added the statement. "It became evident over the year that there is no case or evidence," it added.
In early February, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the 40 Brotherhood members, 33 of whom are in custody, be put on trial before a military court on charges of money laundering and terrorism.
The next session of the trial on the remaining charges will be held Dec. 23.
The Brotherhood trial has drawn much criticism in Egypt, where it has become the largest proceedings against an opposition group in recent years and is part of an ongoing crackdown on the opposition movement.
An Administrative Court earlier this year decided in a rare ruling that Mubarak's order to try the Brotherhood's members before a military court was illegal, but the state appealed that decision and within days the trial resumed.
Two other civilian courts twice ordered the release of el-Shater and a number of his co-defendants, but Egypt's emergency state prosecutor disregarded the ruling and renewed their detentions.
El-Shater is known as the fundamentalist group's chief strategist and financier. Following his arrest, the government froze the assets of 29 Brotherhood members and several companies linked to the group.
Seventy companies have since been closed down, said the Brotherhood's statement on Saturday.
Human rights groups in Egypt and abroad have repeatedly condemned Egypt's policy of trial of civilians before military courts, which usually issue swift and harsh verdicts with no possibility of appeal short of a presidential pardon.
The Brotherhood, founded 1928, but officially banned since in 1954, is Egypt's largest opposition group with its lawmakers, who run as independents, holding just over a fifth of the seats in the 454-member lower house of the parliament.
According to Sawasiyah, an Egyptian Human Rights group affiliated with the Brotherhood, 3,245 members of the Brotherhood have been arrested in 2007, the organization said in a report issued Sunday.
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