CAIRO, (Reuters) – An Egyptian court sentenced opposition politician and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour to five years in jail on forgery charges on Saturday, raising a storm of outrage from liberals and reformers.
The United States called on the government to release him, saying his conviction cast doubt on the country”s commitment to democratic reform.
Nour, leader of the liberal Ghad (Tomorrow) Party and the main challenger to President Hosni Mubarak in the September elections, will appeal the sentence, his lawyer said.
"This is a black day for this court … This is injustice and we are going to take it to the court of cassation," lawyer Amir Salim told reporters.
Nour”s wife, Gameela Ismail, who has organised daily protests against the trial, led supporters in chants of "Down with Mubarak, Down with the Regime."
A Ghad Party statement blamed the judge, Abdel Salam Gomaa, and noted the same man had found liberal sociologist Saadeddin Ibrahim guilty in 2002 of damaging Egypt”s reputation abroad.
"Throughout Nour”s trial, the judge showed a hostile attitude towards Nour and his defence team, denying most of their motions and allowing slander of Ayman Nour," it said.
The independent Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights said it had doubts about whether the trial had been fair and asked the authorities to free Nour until his appeal is complete.
Another rights group, Sawasya, said Egyptian justice was clearly elective since no one faced prosecution for the widely documented electoral violations committed during the year.
Political analyst and reformist Mohamed el-Sayed Said said: "It”s totally unacceptable and I am confident the ruling was a fraud. The Egyptian people will not forgive those who gave up their responsibility as judges and acted on political orders."
Saadeddin Ibrahim, who was later acquitted, told Reuters: "It is a sad day for Egypt and for reform … The Mubarak regime could not stand him so they fabricated a case against him, reminiscent of my own case."
Nour, 41, has been on hunger strike in jail for two weeks in protest at the trial, which he says is an attempt to remove him from politics. The forgery charges stem from Nour”s 2004 application to set up the Ghad Party, which required hundreds of signatures of endorsement.
EIGHT PERCENT OF VOTE
Nour was detained in January and held for six weeks for questioning on allegations that many of the signatures were forgeries. He repeatedly denied it and said the authorities were trying to disrupt his campaign for the presidency.
Nour won about 8 percent of the popular vote in the presidential elections, second to Mubarak with 89 percent, but he and all other Ghad Party members of parliament lost their seats in the legislature in November and December.
Deputy Ghad Party head and acting leader Nagui El Ghatrifi said Nour”s imprisonment could lead to violence.
"It”s a disastrous situation and it will lead to more disaster. The people need a way to express themselves and their wishes. Ayman Nour gave them a chance," he said.
"By having him in prison, the opposition will be more severely felt and I don”t think their reaction will be peaceful," added Ghatrifi, a former Egyptian diplomat.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States was "deeply troubled" by the sentence.
"The United States calls upon the Egyptian government to act under the laws of Egypt in the spirit of its professed desire for increased political openness and dialogue within Egyptian society, and out of humanitarian concern, to release Mr Nour from detention," McClellan said.
During Nour”s previous period of detention in early 2005, the U.S. State Department said it had serious concerns about the case. The Egyptian authorities set him free shortly afterwards, and the state media has since labelled Nour a Western lackey.
An editorial in the Washington Post on Friday said President George W. Bush should stand by Nour, if necessary by withdrawing U.S. military assistance, worth over $1 billion a year.
But Ghatrifi said U.S. support would not be welcome.
"It is not useful or helpful … The foreign forces will not respect us until we prove that we can defend our principles and show our willingness to make sacrifices for our cause," he said.