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The decision by the presiding judge to jail the Egyptian opposition party leader Ayman Nur and other defendants during their trial on Monday underscores the highly politicized conduct of the case, Human Rights Watch said today. Nur, a member of parliament who ran against President Hosni Mubarak in September’s presidential election, faces criminal charges of forgery over many of the signatures that his Ghad (Tomorrow) Party needed to get legal recognition.

Human Rights Watch has monitored the 17 sessions of the trial, which began on June 28. On Monday, the presiding judge, `Adil `Abd al-Salam Guma`, scheduled a final session for Saturday, December 10. He then abruptly ordered Nur and the others, who had been free on bail, confined to jail until the Saturday session.

Nur’s defense attorneys told Human Rights Watch that they expect the judge to issue verdicts at Saturday’s session, following closing remarks from defense and prosecution attorneys.

“Ayman Nur’s trial, like the violence against voters in the parliamentary elections, is a terrible advertisement for President Mubarak’s supposed reform agenda, and for Egypt’s judiciary,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East division. “In the courtroom, as at the voting booths, there is little tolerance for challenges to the ruling party’s hegemony.”

The state is trying Nur with five others charged in the case. The five provided confessions before the trial started saying Nur instigated the forgery scheme and pressured them to take part. It appears that they are hoping to be acquitted in return for turning state’s witness in the case. A seventh person is being tried with them in absentia.

Throughout the trial, the other defendants’ lawyers persistently defamed Nur and his defense team and interrupted their arguments, but Judge Guma` consistently rejected requests from Nur’s attorneys to stop them.

One of the defendants, Ayman Isma’il Hassan, retracted his statement against Nur in the second session of the trial, on June 30, saying that security agents had coerced him into making the statement. Judge Guma` at first refused to allow his retraction to be put into the record. Isma’il repeated his retraction of his confession at the next session, on July 6, and requested the court to order the government to protect him from reprisal. Judge Guma` on this occasion did allow the retraction to be entered into the record, but rejected Isma’il’s request for protection, saying he was not responsible for anything outside the courtroom.

Judge Guma` consistently refused to grant most defense requests for access to relevant documents, such as copies of the signatures that were allegedly forged. The judge also refused a request to subpoena the minutes of the January 19, 2005, meeting of the Ministry of Interior’s Public Audit Bureau, which generated the forgery accusations.

The judge initially denied the defense counsels’ request to subpoena testimony from `Adil Yassin, an official of the Public Audit Bureau, even though one person called by the defense testified that he witnessed Yassin discussing plans with another defendant, Isma’il Zakariyya, to entrap Nur in the forgery scheme; Judge Guma` subsequently allowed Nur’s defense team to subpoena Yassin. In his testimony, Yassin said that he received five forged signatures and “information” that Ayman Nur and two other “unknown” persons were responsible for the forgeries.

In the trial’s 10th session, on November 29, Judge Guma` rejected as irrelevant 15 questions that Nur’s lawyers put to witnesses. But in the same session, despite objections from Nur’s lawyers, he allowed questions from the other defendants’ lawyers that were solely intended to insult and defame Nur.

The initial court sessions were held in a small downtown courtroom in which plainclothes and uniformed security officers took up most seats, sometimes preventing lawyers as well as journalists and supporters of the defendants from attending. The sessions were eventually moved to a larger courtroom in Nasr City, a Cairo suburb.

Nur, who was jailed for 45 days in January when he was arrested on the forgery charges, mounted the strongest challenge to President Mubarak in Egypt’s first contested presidential elections in September. In the parliamentary elections, Nur lost his seat to a candidate from the ruling National Democratic Party, and all other Ghad Party candidates lost their bids as well. Nur has charged that “a decision was taken at the highest level that Ghad would not win a single seat.”

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