An Egyptian military tribunal Tuesday sentenced leading members of the Muslim Brotherhood to long prison terms in the government’s latest effort to weaken the country’s strongest opposition voice.
The court sentenced 25 members of the banned Islamist organization to as many as 10 years in jail on charges that included terrorism and money laundering, officials said. The verdicts in the yearlong trial came as the government of President Hosni Mubarak is attempting to isolate dissident groups as it faces widespread criticism for inflation and social problems that have led to bread lines and labor unrest.
The sentences were expected to be harsh and the trial was repeatedly condemned by human rights groups as a sign of political repression. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose members ran as independents and won 20% of the seats in parliament in 2005, has been accused by Mubarak’s government of plotting its overthrow by reactivating the group’s military wing and of seeking to impose Sharia, or Islamic law, on the country.
The court rulings may have a dramatic effect on the group’s political direction and finances. Mohammed Khayrat Shater, its lead strategist, and Hassan Malek, a businessman who raised donations, were each sentenced to seven years in prison. Five other members, including Youssef Nada, who is alleged to have funneled money to terrorist organizations, were out of the country and tried in absentia. Seven of the group’s members received 10-year sentences. The property and money of those convicted were seized.
Fifteen defendants were acquitted of belonging to the banned organization as the verdicts were handed down at a military base outside Cairo.
The group’s supreme leader, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, told the Egyptian media that government authorities were corrupt and a “bunch of gangsters. . . . These are gangs, not politicians, who rule this country.”
The satellite news channel Al Jazeera reported that families and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood gathered in front of the court but were banned from entering as police dispersed crowds by force and arrested about 40 people, including journalists.
Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood has strong support among Egypt’s educated and middle classes. The group has helped spark a religious revival in the country, and its community services have highlighted government failings in healthcare and education. The Muslim Brotherhood has renounced violence at home, but it does support the militant Palestinian group Hamas and others deemed as terrorist organizations by the West.
Government pressure on the group has been intense for decades. Weeks before Tuesday’s verdicts, more than 800 members were rounded up by security forces ahead of Egypt’s April 8 municipal elections. The organization attempted to field hundreds of candidates, but only 20 of its activists were allowed on the ballot for 52,000 seats. Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party won more than 95% of the vote.
“These verdicts come after falsified local elections and amid great tension in the Egyptian street,” Issam Aryan, a group cadre, told Arab television reporters. Asked what the reaction of the organization would be, he said that “the policy of the Brotherhood is to lead peaceful change through political and constitutional channels. Those in power are in bad terms with the society as a whole -- they are the ones who protect corruption.”