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(photo credit: AP)
A court on Saturday sentenced leading government opponent Ayman Nour to five years in prison for forgery at the end of a year-long judicial process that has drawn international criticism and strained Egypt's relations with the US.
The conviction of Nour, the runner-up in this year's presidential elections, provoked uproar from his hundreds of supporters in and around the courtroom.
Chief defense counsel Amir Salem shouted: "This is a political verdict that will be annulled by the appeal court. This verdict will go into the dustbin of history." Salem added that he would appeal to the Court of Cassation, the highest appeal body.
Nour's wife shouted "Down with Hosni Mubarak!" Egypt's president.
Judge Abdel Salam Gomaa left the court immediately after delivering the verdicts and sentences, later issuing a written judgment that rejected claims of a politically motivated trial.
Outside the court, 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.
About a hundred supporters of the populist politician had slept in the street outside the court, which was cordoned off the night before, and some were seen crying after the verdict.
Nour had pleaded innocent to ordering the forging of signatures to register his Al-Ghad party last year. He said he did not know several of his six co-defendants who allegedly assisted him in the fraud.
One of the co-defendants retracted his confession during the trial, telling the court that security officials had coerced him to implicate Nour.
In his judgment, Judge Gomaa wrote that Nour must have known about the forgeries because copies of the forged documents were found at his residence and he had ordered his aides to throw out copies stored at 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," the judgment said.
Looking pale and dressed in white, Nour arrived at the court from the hospital where he had been held in custody for a week after starting a hunger strike to protest his detention. The court ordered him detained on December 5 in a move seen as indicating that a conviction was likely.
Nour's initial arrest on January 29 and 42-day detention strained US-Egyptian relations. Newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post called for his release and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit to Egypt, apparently in disapproval of the government's treatment of Nour.
On Friday, The Washington Post said that Nour was being vindictively prosecuted on "trumped-up charges." In an editorial, the newspaper said the trial judge was "notorious for handling the president's dirty work," and urged President George W. Bush to use US aid to Egypt as a lever to procure Nour's freedom.
In 2002, Judge Gomaa convicted the sociology professor and rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American, of tarnishing Egypt's image. The Court of Cassation overturned the verdict.
The verdicts of the co-defendants were not heard as the courtroom erupted in shouts as soon as the judge delivered Nour's conviction and sentence. But Egypt's semi-official Middle East News Agency reported that all six were convicted of forgery, with Ismail Zakhariya and Ayman Ismail receiving five years in prison; Lotfi el-Shenawi, Ahmed Abd el-Shafi el-Gheryani and Mervit Saber receiving three years. Farag Shadid Abdel Hamid, who was tried in absentia, received 10 years.
Nour finished a distant second to longtime President Mubarak in September's elections, Egypt's first contested presidential race, and lost his parliamentary seat in November's legislative polls. He is appealing the November result alleging irregularities.
Nour's Al-Ghad Party issued a statement saying the verdict was "a matter of settling of the accounts of the presidential elections. The verdict had been issued a 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.
Earlier this month, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the US was calling on Egypt "to make every effort to ensure that this trial conforms to international standards."