Posted: Jan 2, 2014 1:40 PM
Updated: Jan 2, 2014 1:41 PM
CAIRO (AP) Egyptian authorities produced on Thursday what they said was a confession by the son of a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood, trying to bolster accusations that the Islamist group has links to al-Qaida-inspired militants.
In a news conference, the interior minister aired the recording said to be of Yahia Mongi, son of a Brotherhood lawmaker, in which he says he joined the Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or Champions of Jerusalem group.
Mohammed Ibrahim said Mongi was part of a seven-member cell that carried out a suicide bombing of a provincial security headquarters last month. The Ansar took responsibility for the blast, as well as other attacks.
The charge that the Brotherhood has links to Ansar Beit al-Maqdis is central to the government's case for labelling the group, from which ousted President Mohammed Morsi hails, as a terrorist organization. The confession is the first purported piece of hard evidence produced by authorities to make the link.
Human rights advocates say that police frequently use torture and other means of coercion to produce confessions, relying on them in lieu of other evidence to convict defendants in both ordinary criminal and security trials.
The Brotherhood denies that it practices violence and accuses police of plotting the attacks to find a pretext for a heavier crackdown on its members.
The news conference came as a court set Jan. 28 as the opening date for Morsi's trial along with 130 others in connection to a 2011 jailbreak. It is the third set of charges that Morsi faces. Also, a court in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria sentenced seven secular-leaning activists to two years in prison on charges related to a protest.
Minister Ibrahim said Mongi's role was surveillance and hosting the Ansar's leader.
He listed names of Muslim Brotherhood members alleged to have crossed to the Gaza Strip and received training from Hamas, the militant group that rules the territory. When they returned to Egypt, the minister said, they carried out a number of other attacks including shooting anti-Islamist protesters.
Ibrahim said the group "opened channels" with Hamas after the country's 2011 uprising, which brought down autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak. The minister said the Palestinian group provided "logistical support" training and developed technology such as devices to jam planes' detection systems.
He did not provide any evidence for the claims of training and support. The Brotherhood does have longstanding ties with its offshoot Hamas, and did ally politically with more radical groups during Morsi's time in office, including some ex-militants from groups that attacked police, tourists, and others in the 1990s.
The military overthrew Morsi on July 3 after millions took to the streets demanding he step down. Since then, attacks by suspected Islamic militants have escalated. Their deadliest bombing yet was the Dec. 24 blast at the security headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura that killed 16 people, almost all policemen.
The military-backed interim government has meanwhile cracked down hard on Brotherhood. Hundreds of its supporters were killed in a bloody crackdown on protest camps and in street demonstrations demanding Morsi's reinstatement. Its leaders face a long list of charges, many punishable by death.
In the latest measure taken against the group, a judicial official said Thursday that a government inventory committee decided to confiscate the assets of an additional 152 Muslim Brotherhood businessmen, bringing the total number of group's members and allies whose assets have been seized to more than 800.
The same committee also confiscated assets of more than 1,000 non-government organizations for allegedly having links with the Brotherhood, and tightened control over scores of schools owned or run by the group.
The Brotherhood and its allies have organized near-daily protests against the coup and the crackdown. Late Wednesday, two protesters died in clashes between police and demonstrators in Alexandria, a security official said. He spoke anonymously as he was not authorized to talk to media.
Meanwhile, a Cairo Appeals Court announced on Thursday that it set Jan. 28 as the date for Morsi's trial. Among the 130 defendants, more than 70 of them are Palestinians and two are Lebanese. The group also includes top Brotherhood figures such as the group's spiritual guide, Mohammed Badie. Of the defendants, 22 remain at large.
Symbolically, the trial date falls on the third anniversary of the day on which Morsi and more than 30 others from his Muslim Brotherhood group, who were jailed at the time, escaped from Wadi al-Natroun prison. They were some of the more than 20,000 inmates who fled from prisons across Egypt, including members of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas.
The prison breaks which remain one of the mysteries of the 2011 uprising came as Mubarak's security apparatus collapsed.
According to the prosecution, the Brotherhood allegedly recruited about 800 militants from Gaza to attack police stations and at least three prisons in Egypt, breaking out prisoners and killing police officers and inmates.
Rights groups have called for an independent investigation into the chaotic events, saying they hold the police responsible for the pandemonium around the jailbreaks.
Since the coup, Egypt's military has stepped up an offensive in the northern Sinai Peninsula near the border with the Gaza Strip, where the Ansar and other militants are based. On Thursday, military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali said one fighter was killed and 13 arrested, while militant tunnels and stores were destroyed.
Ansar Beit al-Maqdis for its part vowed to avenge a cleric whom it said died in prison under torture. "Let the tyrants and their minions know that, God willing, we will take revenge," it said in a message posted on jihadi websites.
Meanwhile, in Alexandria, a court sentenced seven activists to two years in prison on several charges including protesting without a permit and clashing with police last month. Out of the seven, three were tried in absentia.
The defendants included two prominent names in Egypt's youth movement, Hassan Mustafa and Maheinour al-Masri.
The activists were arrested on Dec. 2 while demonstrating during the retrial of two policemen accused in the killing of Khalid Said. Said, beaten to death in June 2010, became a rallying call of Egypt's 2011 uprising.
AP Reporter Maggie Hyde contributed to this report from Cairo, Egypt