Egypt military court postpones verdict in trial of 40 Muslim Brotherhood members, lawyer says

Egypt military court postpones verdict in trial of 40 Muslim Brotherhood members, lawyer says

HAEKSTEP, Egypt – An Egyptian military court postponed Tuesday the verdict in the trial of 40 leading Muslim Brotherhood members, a lawyer for the banned opposition group said, linking the postponement to upcoming key local elections.

The trial, which began last April, is one of the largest such tribunals in years here and comes as part of an intensified crackdown against the country’s most powerful opposition movement.

Abdel Moneim Abdel Maksoud, chief Brotherhood lawyer, said the postponement reflected the authorities’ desire to stave off any widescale Brotherhood action ahead of the April 8 municipal voting for city councils.

“It’s a political case, the postponement has to do with the local elections,” he said.

A military court official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said the verdict was postponed for March 25.

Over a year ago, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the 40 charged Brotherhood members _ 33 of whom have been in custody since Dec. 2006, while seven are tried in absentia _ to stand trial before a military court instead of a civilian tribunal, on charges of money laundering and terrorism.

Although an appeals court later ruled against Mubarak’s order, the state overturned the court’s decision and the trial resumed before the military court.

Among those on trial is Khayrat el-Shater, 57, Brotherhood’s third-highest ranking member known as the fundamentalist group’s chief strategist and financier.

The Brotherhood advocates implementation of Islamic law but says it wants democratic reforms in Egypt, where the 79-year-old Mubarak has had a quarter century of authoritarian rule. The government accuses the group of seeking to take over the country.

The movement was founded in 1928 but has been officially banned since 1954. It is Egypt’s largest opposition group and its lawmakers, although they run as independents, hold more than a fifth of the seats in parliament’s 454-member lower house.

The group stunned the government by scoring large victories in the 2005 parliament elections, and as a result, Mubarak delayed the municipal elections originally set for April 2006.

The city councils have long been a backbone of support for Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, though they previously had little power and elections for them were widely ignored. But their importance increased with constitutional amendments passed in 2005 that require would-be candidates for president to obtain 250 recommendations from parliament and city council members to be eligible to run.

Many believe the government fears that if the Brotherhood gains a strong presence in the councils, it would open the door for the group to eventually try to field a candidate for president.

The Brotherhood believes that a high turnout by its supporters could counter vote-rigging and forgeries that have become the norm of elections here.

Some 2,000 Muslim Brotherhood supporters and relatives of the 33 on trial gathered early Tuesday in front of the Haekstep military base outside of Cairo, where the trial is being held.

Women, covered head-to-toe with children tagging along, and men, waving posters of the detainees, chanted anti-government slogans and denounced the trial as unfair.

“God is Great. Allahu Akbar,” they shouted. “Terrorism or money laundry, where is the evidence? State Security, you thugs, you protect the thieves!”

The authorities recently stepped up their campaign against the Brotherhood, bringing to 222 the number of those arrested _ including Brotherhood members, potential candidates for local elections, and university students affiliated with the group _ in the last two weeks.

About 400 others remain in prison since previous arrests, including the 33 on trial before the military court.