2011 Morsi jailbreak 'a militant conspiracy', Egyptian court says

Court says Islamist groups planned raid on prison that freed 34.

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CAIRO // Muslim Brotherhood members conspired with Hamas, Hizbollah and local militants to storm a prison in 2011 and free Mohammed Morsi and 33 other Islamist leaders, an Egyptian court said yesterday.

Judge Khaled Mahgoub named two Brotherhood members among the alleged conspirators in the attack on Wadi Al Natroun prison on January 29.

It was the first statement by the court holding members of the three Islamist groups responsible for the jailbreaks during the uprising against Hosni Mubarak. Two other prisons where Hamas and Hizbollah members were held were also attacked.

Mr 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 prison attacks.

The Freedom and Justice party, the political arm of the Brotherhood, said the court statement was "void and illegal".

Nevertheless, it is likely to further fuel opposition to the president's rule a week before his opponents plan mass protests to try to force him out of office. The June 30 demonstrations will mark the anniversary of Mr Morsi's taking office in 2012 as Egypt's first freely elected leader.

Pressure on Mr Morsi grew yesterday when Wael Ghonim, the best known youth figure of the 2011 revolution, asked him to step down. In a video message posted on the internet, Mr Ghonim accused Mr Morsi of reneging on promises he made before his 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 hardline Islamists have declared the protesters infidels whose killing is justified.

The president'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.

Mr Morsi has not spoken publicly about his escape from Wadi Al 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," he said.

The prison breaks during the 18-day popular uprising that toppled Mubarak's 29-year regime also let about 23,000 criminals on to the streets, fuelling a crime wave that continues to this day.

About 40 members of Hamas and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hizbollah also escaped.

A total of 26 top police, prison and intelligence officials gave evidence 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 Al 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 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 from Wadi Al Natroun. He was acquitted by Mr Mahgoub, who yesterday referred to prosecutors the evidence gathered during the trial "to reveal the truth and honour the state's right to mete out justice".

Mr Morsi's opponents have been using his prison escape against him, and say 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.

Mr Maghoub said allies of Hamas in Sinai prepared for the entry of its fighters into the peninsula with attacks on January 25, 2011, against security forces on the Sinai side of tunnels running under the border with Hamas-ruled Gaza. Fighters from Hamas and Hizbollah crossed into Egypt on January 28, he said.

The 34 Brotherhood leaders were arrested on January 27 and arrived in Wadi El Natroun shortly before their escape, the judge said.