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CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian court on Thursday jailed two Christian Egyptian-American couples for two years in a high profile illegal adoption case in mainly Muslim Egypt.
The couples, including two U.S. citizens and their Egyptian-born spouses, have spent the duration of the trial in jail and still face at least nine more months imprisonment after time off for good behavior and time served, a lawyer said.
A third couple, believed to have fled the country, was tried in absentia and also sentenced to two years in jail.
"Of course it is bad," said Sameh Ahmed Saleh, lawyer for American Louis Andros and his Egyptian wife Iris Botros. The couple was also fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds ($18,200) each, as were five other defendants.
"We believe they are not guilty ... They adopted children and this is not a crime. Even in Egyptian law this is not a crime," Saleh told Reuters.
Akram Hamami, a lawyer for the other jailed couple, described the verdict as "aggressive." Both planned to appeal.
The case, involving Christian Egyptian-American couples who wanted to adopt Egyptian children, has provoked anger among some Egyptian Christian activists who complain Islamic strictures make it impossible for Christians to adopt.
Lawyers for the couples say their clients should be exonerated because they say Islamic law, a basis for Egyptian law, generally allows Christians to follow the rules of their faith on issues of personal status, like marriage and divorce.
There is no practical legal mechanism for Christian families to adopt in Egypt. Islamic law restricts adoption, barring families from giving their name to children they take into their homes.
The defendants, in white prison garb, appeared inside a metal cage in court and several tried to shield their faces from the media with newspapers.
One couple embraced before the ruling and held up a photograph of the baby boy they had tried to adopt, while the other patted each other on the shoulders and spoke quietly.
The case came to light after Botros and her husband approached the U.S. embassy in Cairo to arrange to take two babies out of Egypt using forged papers indicating the infants were their biological children, according to the indictment.
It said the couple had agreed with an orphanage worker "to buy two newborn infants, a girl and a boy, in exchange for 26,000 pounds." The family's lawyer said the couple wanted to adopt the children and did not knowingly break the law.
The second couple was accused of obtaining a forged birth certificate for a baby boy to take him to the United States but was not accused of buying the child, the indictment said.
The couple tried in absentia was accused of forgery and paying 10,000 pounds for a baby girl. All the children involved have been returned to Egyptian orphanages.
In addition to the couples, three other defendants including an orphanage worker and a doctor were sentenced to five years in jail while two other Egyptians received jail terms of two years.
Rights activists say trafficking in infants and young children takes place in the most populous Arab country, and infants in orphanages and babies of street girls are at highest risk of being trafficked, often to infertile couples.
Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Jon Hemming