CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt on Wednesday convicted 26 men it linked to Lebanon’s Hezbollah of planning attacks inside the country, in a case that has underscored Sunni Arab concerns about the rising influence of the Iranian-backed group.
Judge Adel Abdel Salam Gomaa of Egypt’s emergency state security court said investigations had proved the group intended “to strike Egypt’s economy, destroy the bonds between its people and create chaos and instability throughout the country.”
The court sentenced the men — who included Lebanese, Palestinians, Egyptians and one Sudanese — to jail terms from six months to life. Some were convicted in absentia.
Among those tried was Sami Chehab, also named as Mohamed Youssef Mansour Ahmed, who received a jail term of 15 years. He was present in court, placed with the others inside a cage.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah last year confirmed Chehab was a member of the group, which has both political and military wings and is now part of Lebanon’s government, but denied the man committed any crime. Nasrallah said Chehab was only helping equip Palestinians in their fight against Israel.
Defense attorney Montasser Zayat said three of those convicted received life sentences, which he said in Egyptian law was equivalent to 25 years.
“This verdict is cruel and does not fit with the documents put forward,” Zayat said. No appeal would be possible but President Hosni Mubarak would be able to reduce any of the sentences if he chose, he said.
Rights groups say Egypt has used “exceptional” courts like emergency and military courts to secure guilty verdicts and point to swift and often harsh sentences passed by the courts against Islamist militants in the 1990s.
Egypt’s relations with Hezbollah have been strained since the group called Egypt a “partner in crime” with Israel against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip.
Some Arabs have criticized Egypt for what they say is Cairo’s support of Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Egypt, the only Arab state to share a border with Gaza, has said Nasrallah was trying to create chaos in the region to serve the interests of others, an apparent reference to Iran.
Cairo has long had strained relations with Tehran and the two countries do not have full diplomatic ties.
Nasrallah had said no more than 10 people had cooperated with Chehab, rather than the 26 Egypt accused.
Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, writing by Missy Ryan and Edmund Blair; editing by Janet Lawrence