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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - An Egyptian lawyer whose arrest in April led to a diplomatic spat between Egypt and the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has been charged with drug smuggling and could face the death penalty, his lawyer told Reuters on Thursday.
Ahmed el-Gezawi was arrested for drug possession as he was trying the enter the kingdom at the Jeddah airport in April. His arrest led to demonstrations outside the Saudi embassy in Cairo, where almost 1,000 people hurled insults at the kingdom's rulers, leading it to recall its ambassador on April 28.
The case sparked protests in Cairo, prompting Riyadh to close its embassy there in a sign of its deepening anxiety about the future direction of a formerly close ally after last year's revolution.
The ambassador returned to Cairo a week later after high-level Egyptian delegations visited Riyadh to assure the Saudi authorities they were committed to the relationship. Saudi Arabia is a major donor of aid to Egypt.
"Yesterday was the first session in his trial. We received the list of charges and requested some time to present our defense so the case was delayed until September 5," Gezawi's Saudi lawyer, Hesham Hanboli, told Reuters by phone on Thursday.
Wednesday's hearing was devoted to the formal declaration of charges and Gezawi's response and presentation of a defense will take place in the subsequent court session, the lawyer said.
Gezawi was charged with smuggling around 21,000 pills of the anti-anxiety drug, Xanax. "The punishment for smuggling drugs can be the death penalty... and that is what the general prosecutor is asking for," Hanboli said.
Activists in Cairo say Gezawi helped Egyptians facing trial in the Saudi criminal justice system, which international human rights groups say conducts unfair trials, an accusation Riyadh denies.
His relatives and Egyptian activists have also said they believe he was earlier sentenced in absentia for insulting Saudi King Abdullah, and then arrested as he entered the kingdom to perform the Muslim pilgrimage.
Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Egypt strenuously denied at the time of the protests that Gezawi had either been tried or sentenced in absentia. He added that an Egyptian living in Egypt could not legally be convicted in Saudi Arabia of insulting King Abdullah.
"El Gezawi is known to have been supporting the case of imprisoned Egyptians in Saudi without fair trials," said Yehia el-Gamal, a member of the Journalists Syndicate's committee for the defense of prisoners of conscience, one of the most active groups in Egypt defending political detainees.
During the hearing Gezawi lifted his shirt to show scars from what he said was abuse during detention and questioning in Jeddah. The judge requested further investigation of the abuse claims, the result of which is to be announced in three weeks, Hanboli said.
The spokesperson for the Bureau of Investigation and General Prosecution was not available for comment.
Reporting by Asma Alsharif; Additional reporting by Shaimaa Fayed in Cairo; Editing by Angus McDowall and Ralph Boulton