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Egyptian opposition leader gets jail term in forgery case

White House is 'deeply troubled,' presses for release

CAIRO -- An Egyptian court sentenced a top opposition leader to five years in prison yesterday for forging petition signatures in a trial that strained relations with the United States and raised doubts about the sincerity of Egypt's democratic reforms.

Ayman Nour, who came in a distant second to President Hosni Mubarak in the country's first contested presidential elections earlier this year, said the government invented the forgery charge to eliminate him from politics.

The White House said yesterday that the conviction ''calls into question Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom, and the rule of law."

The United States was ''deeply troubled" by the conviction and called on Egypt to release Nour, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Nour's Al-Ghad party issued a statement saying yesterday's verdict was ''a matter of settling of the accounts of the presidential elections."

''The verdict had been issued long time ago, and it did not come from the court but from the regime which has destroyed political life for many decades," Al-Ghad said.

Nour, whose chief lawyer promised an appeal, was ordered detained earlier this month ahead of the verdict. He has been on a hunger strike for two weeks, was moved to a hospital a week ago and looked pale in court yesterday.

His wife and lawyers in the courtroom, and hundreds of his supporters outside, erupted in anger when the conviction was announced.

''Down with Hosni Mubarak!" his wife, Gamila Ismail, shouted.

''This is a political verdict that will be annulled by the appeals court," attorney Amir Salem said. ''This verdict will go into the dustbin of history."

He said he would appeal to Egypt's highest appeals panel, the Court of Cassation.

Outside, about 500 Nour supporters chanted ''Hosni Mubarak's rule is illegal!" and ''The trial is illegal!" They were barred from the court building by hundreds of riot police, who had closed off the street.

Judge Abdel Salam Gomaa issued a written judgment after the sentence denying that the trial was politically motivated.

Nour had pleaded innocent to ordering the forgery of signatures needed to register his opposition party last year. Six codefendants who allegedly assisted him in the fraud and testified against him during the trial also were convicted yesterday and sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

One of the codefendants had recanted his testimony against Nour early in the trial, saying security agents threatened his family to turn him against the politician.

Nour's conviction was a setback to a US policy encouraging democratic reform in the Middle East.

The Egyptian government touted September elections -- in which Nour and nine other candidates competed against Mubarak -- as a sign of reform. Mubarak previously had been re-elected four times in yes-no referendums in which he was the only candidate.

But widespread violence marred parliamentary elections in November and December as police and ruling party supporters tried to block opposition voters from the polls. Washington and human rights activists criticized the conduct of the elections.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a planned visit to Egypt to protest Nour's Jan. 29 arrest and 42-day detention. When Nour was finally released on bail, Rice came to Cairo and met him and other opposition leaders.

Major US newspapers also have criticized Nour's trial and called for his release.

In his judgment yesterday, Gomaa wrote that Nour must have known about the alleged signature forgery because copies of forged documents were found at his home and he had ordered aides to throw out copies from his office.

''The court does not accept Ayman Nour's defense that the documents were forged by certain parties without his knowledge and with the aim of harming him," Gomaa wrote.

In 2002, Gomaa convicted Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American sociology professor and rights activist, of tarnishing Egypt's image. The Court of Cassation overturned the verdict.

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