By HAMZA HENDAWI
CAIRO (AP) _ An Egyptian court said Sunday that Muslim Brotherhood members conspired with Hamas, Hezbollah and local militants to storm a prison in 2011 and free 34 Brotherhood leaders, including the future President Mohammed Morsi.
The court statement read by judge Khaled Mahgoub named two members of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood among the alleged conspirators in the attack on Wadi el-Natroun prison on Jan. 29, 2011.
It is the first statement by a court holding members of the three Islamist groups responsible for jailbreaks during the chaos of Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Two other prisons where Palestinian Hamas and Lebanese Hezbollah members were held were also attacked.
Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders have maintained that they were freed by local residents. Hamas, the Palestinian chapter of the Brotherhood, has denied involvement in the attacks on prisons.
The Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, said Sunday’s statement was “void and illegal.” It posted on its Twitter account that Mahgoub “will end like any other judge who did not respect the law or the constitution.”
Still, the court statement is likely to further fuel opposition to Morsi’s rule just a week before his opponents plan mass protests to try to force him out of office. The June 30 demonstrations would mark the anniversary of his taking office in 2012 as Egypt’s first freely elected leader.
The past year has seen growing polarization as Egypt struggles with a host of problems that many accuse Morsi of failing to effectively tackle. They include surging crime, rising prices, power cuts, fuel shortages and unemployment.
Pressure on Morsi grew on Sunday when Wael Ghonim, the best known youth figure of the 2011 revolution, asked Morsi to step down. In a video message posted on the Internet on Sunday, Ghonim accused Morsi of reneging on promises he made ahead of his 2012 election.
The president, he said, must act like a “patriotic Egyptian” and resign to prevent “strife.”
Many Egyptians have been alarmed by statements from Morsi supporters vowing to “smash” the protesters. Several hard-line Islamists have declared the protesters infidels whose killing is justified.
Morsi’s supporters say his opponents should try to remove him through the ballot box, and attempting to force him out is an attack on electoral legitimacy.
Also Sunday, a member of a radical Islamist group appointed by Morsi as governor of the ancient city of Luxor resigned in the face of daily protests outside his office.
Adel el-Khayat is a member of the Construction and Development party, the political arm of the Gamaa Islamiya, which waged an armed insurgency against the state starting in 1992 and attacked police, Coptic Christians and tourists.
In November 1997, gunmen from the group attacked tourists at Luxor’s 3,400-year-old Hatshepsut Temple, killing 58. More than 1,200 people died in the campaign of violence by the group, which later renounced violence, and another militant organization, Islamic Jihad.
“I discussed with my brothers from the Construction and Development party, and we agreed that I should present my resignation as Luxor’s governor because we don’t want bloodshed”, he said in a statement. “We cannot accept the shedding of even one drop of blood for a position that we never wanted.”
Morsi has not spoken publicly about his escape from Wadi el-Natroun since he gave an account of what happened in a frantic phone call he made to Al-Jazeera Mubasher TV moments after being freed.
“From the noises we heard … It seemed to us there were (prisoners) attempting to get out of their cells and break out into the prison yard and the prison authorities were trying to regain control and fired tear gas,” Morsi said in the call.
The prison breaks took place during the 18-day popular uprising that toppled the 29-year regime of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The breaks led to a flood of some 23,000 criminals onto the streets, fueling a crime wave that continues to this day.
Among those who escaped were around 40 members of Hamas and Hezbollah as well as the 34 Brotherhood leaders.
A total of 26 top police, prison and intelligence officials testified before the court, which held its hearings in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia.
Ibrahim Haggag and Sayed Ayad, the two Brotherhood officials named by the judge, took part in the attack on Wadi el-Natroun with “those (foreign) elements who violated the sovereignty of the Egyptian state and its territory in addition to spreading chaos throughout the republic and terrifying unarmed civilians at their homes by releasing thousands of prisoners who are a danger to society,” the court statement said.
The case began in January when a former inmate appealed a three-month sentence passed by a lower court that convicted him of escaping Wadi el-Natroun. The defendant was acquitted by Mahgoub, who on Sunday referred to prosecutors the testimonies and evidence gathered during the trial on the jailbreak at Wadi el-Natroun in order “to reveal the truth and honor the state’s right to mete out justice.”
There was no immediate word from the office of the country’s top prosecutor on whether his office planned to take up the case.
In Egypt’s polarized political climate, Morsi’s opponents have been using his escape from Wadi el-Natroun against him, saying friends of the Brotherhood violated the country’s security and fed its instability. The eagerness of some in the intelligence and security agencies to blame Hamas could in part reflect resentment of the Brotherhood’s ties with the militant group, which they have long seen as a threat.
The Wadi el-Natroun prison in which Morsi and his Brotherhood comrades were held is part of a four-jail complex northwest of Cairo. A total of 11,171 inmates were released from the complex. Thirteen inmates were also killed, according to Mahgoub, who said the attackers used machine-guns mounted on pickup trucks and SUVs as well as huge earth-moving vehicles that demolished parts of the walls and gates.
Mahgoub said the attackers also seized large amounts of firearms belonging to prison guards. He said allies of Hamas in Sinai prepared for the entry of its fighters into the Egyptian peninsula with attacks on Jan. 25, 2011 against security forces on the Sinai side of tunnels running under the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza. Fighters from Hamas and Hezbollah crossed into Egypt on Jan. 28, he said.
The 34 Brotherhood leaders were arrested on Jan. 27 and arrived in Wadi el-Natroun shortly before their escape, said Mahgoub.
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By HAMZA HENDAWI