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An Egyptian court sentenced a leading opposition figure to five years in jail today on forgery charges he says are politically motivated. Ayman Nour came in second to Hosni Mubarak in this year's presidential election, but since then he has lost his seat in Parliament and now faces a prison term. The White House says it's deeply troubled by the court's verdict. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Cairo.
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PETER KENYON reporting:
Hundreds of Ayman Nour's supporters rallied outside the courthouse for hours before the court session this morning, but they were physically barred from entering by police. The 41-year-old Nour arrived at court from a prison hospital, where according to his wife, Cemile, doctors have been giving him intravenous fluids to counteract the effects of a two-week hunger strike. Nour's a diabetic with blood pressure and heart problems, and his wife says she feared he might slip into a coma.
The early morning court date on Christmas Eve was designed, Nour's supporters say, to minimize international news coverage on the holiday weekend. Nour's wife led the protesters in chants of `Down with Mubarak' which she repeated for reporters outside the courthouse.
CEMILE: `Down to oppressors. Down to dictators. Down to President Mubarak and to the Mubarak's family and to Mubarak's regime. Down to oppression. Down to dictatorship.
KENYON: Ayman Nour helped launch the liberal secular el-Ghad Party last year, just as President Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party sought to demonstrate a new willingness to open the political process. But when an anti-Mubarak movement known as Kifaya began to pick up steam, the regime launched a crackdown. Nour was arrested and held without charge for some six weeks, straining Egypt-US relations. After finishing a distant second in the presidential race, Nour's troubles mounted. Still fighting the forgery charges, he was unable to campaign much for a seat in Parliament which he lost in November. Analysts say it was all part of a pattern encouraged by the government to crush all opposition except for the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which is now the largest opposition bloc in Egypt.
The secular reform movement is in disarray, with no leader and no clear voice in the government. Reformers say they feel let down once again by Washington, which they say has done virtually nothing to rein in Mubarak. In an editorial yesterday, The Washington Post condemned what it called Mr. Mubarak's vindictive persecution of Mr. Nour and called on the Bush administration to withhold some or all of the $1.8 billion in US military aid that flows to Egypt until Nour's freed. There was no reaction to the sentence from the Egyptian government, which has said it would leave the case to the courts.
The White House released a statement today saying the Nour case calls into question Egypt's commitment to democracy, freedom and the rule of law. Washington joined human rights organizations in calling for Nour's release. Nour's attorneys said today's sentence was an injustice and would be appealed. The presiding judge is the same one who convicted another liberal dissident, Saad Eddin, in 2002. That verdict was overturned on appeal.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Cairo.
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