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Mubarak Rival Rejects Charge Amid Courtroom Chaos

Egyptian presidential candidate Ayman Nour pleads not guilty to forging signatures.

June 29, 2005|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

CAIRO — The most prominent opposition candidate in Egypt's coming presidential election pleaded not guilty to forgery charges Tuesday as a heavily criticized trial got off to a tumultuous start.

As opening statements were heard in a cramped courtroom, thousands of security agents sealed off and lined the streets, clubs and shields in hand. Clashes erupted in the corridors between fervent supporters of Ayman Nour and short-tempered security guards.

The trial itself dissolved into enraged shouting matches between lawyers and observers who packed the benches, prompting the judge to storm out of the courtroom in frustration.

Nour, a member of parliament and critic of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, is accused of forging signatures collected to found his opposition Tomorrow Party. He was abruptly stripped of his legislative immunity early this year and jailed for more than a month.

Nour and his followers have insisted that the charges against him were trumped up. They say he is being persecuted because the government wants to stifle an emerging political challenger to Mubarak. Nour has won support from U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who canceled a trip to Egypt early this year after his arrest and met with him while visiting the country last week.

"If the goal [of the trial] is to smear my campaign, I say it won't," said Nour, who pressed his face close to the mesh walls of his cage to speak with supporters and journalists who crammed into the courtroom. "I will carry on my campaign against Mubarak, even from the cage."

Mubarak, 77, stunned the nation this year when he announced that he would allow Egypt's first multiple-candidate presidential election, to be held in September. For the last 24 years, voters have been faced with yes-or-no referendums in which Mubarak was the only candidate.

Nominations for this year's election are expected to be made next month. Nour, 41, is the most prominent among the handful of people who have said they will run against Mubarak. His visibility is largely a result of his time in prison and his very public run-ins with the government.

Appearing before the judge Tuesday, Nour paced and smoked a cigar in the cage. Defendants are often placed in such cages in Egyptian courtrooms. A cameraman for Al Jazeera television clambered atop the cage to film the proceedings. There was no air conditioning, and the smell of sweat hung in the atmosphere. Lawyers perched on the windowsill and balanced precariously on the backs of courthouse benches to get a glimpse of the events.

Nour has insisted that he will continue his drive for the presidency, apparently undaunted by the possibility that he could be in prison when voters go to the polls. If convicted, he would be banned from running and face up to 15 years behind bars.

His wife and spokeswoman, Gamila Ismail, predicted that the trial would drag on and consume most of the time before the election. "He's going to be killed in this way. He'll be extremely exhausted," she said. "How can a candidate run like this? It's impossible."

Each time the government clashes with Nour, he appears to walk away with a boost in his popularity. And seldom has Nour cut such an imposing figure as he did Tuesday morning.

He arrived at the courthouse late, dozens of lawyers in tow. Standing in the shadow of Romanesque pillars atop a sweep of stairs, immaculate in suit and tie, he gesticulated as throngs of followers screamed his name. He was able to mobilize hundreds of supporters inside and outside the courthouse, more people than generally turn out for the regular anti-Mubarak demonstrations in the streets of Cairo.

But inside the courtroom, lawyers for Nour's six co-defendants appeared to be preparing a full-out character assault on him.

They suggested that the man said to be his father might not be his real father, that he may never have earned a doctorate and that he had mysteriously transformed himself from a poor young man to a wealthy presidential candidate in the last decade.

Each bit of innuendo drew rowdy shouts, for and against, from the crowd.

One of Nour's co-defendants was a fellow member of the Tomorrow Party. The others are relatives and friends of his. All of them are expected to argue that they committed forgery under Nour's direct orders. Their lawyers are defending them by painting Nour as a chronic cheat and forger.

They have asked Nour to present such documents as his law degree, his birth certificate and his father's identity card.

"It is a character assassination," said Ismail, Nour's wife.

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