Egypt: Court ruling could free Mubarak

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CAIRO -- A court ruling Monday raised the possibility of jailed ex-President Hosni Mubarak walking free soon, a move that would fuel the unrest roiling the country after the autocratic leader's successor was removed in a military coup.

Underscoring the growing anger over Mohammed Morsi's ouster, suspected Islamic militants ambushed two minibuses carrying off-duty policemen in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, forcing the men to lie on the sand and shooting 25 of them dead.

"They were marked in advance by the attackers," said Ashraf Abdullah, who heads the police branch to which the victims belonged. He said the assailants checked the IDs of the men, who were not in uniform, to ensure that they were policemen before opening fire.

The brazen daylight attack raised fears that the strategic desert region bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip could be plunged into a full-fledged insurgency.

In a separate development early today, police detained the supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which Mr. Morsi hails, according to security officials and state television. They said Mohammed Badie was captured in an apartment in the eastern Cairo district of Nasr City. That is where Mr. Morsi's supporters held a six-week sit-in protest that security forces cleared violently last Wednesday.

The private ONTV network showed footage of a man the network said was Mr. Badie after his arrest. In the footage, a somber-looking Mr. Badie, wearing an off-white Arab robe, or galabiyah, sits motionless on a sofa as a man in civilian clothes but carrying an assault rifle stands nearby.

Mr. Badie and his deputy Khairat el-Shater, who is in custody, go on trial later this month for their alleged role in killing eight protesters outside the Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters in June. His arrest is a serious blow to the group at a time when authorities are cracking down on its leaders and mid-ranking officials, detaining scores of them across the country.

The 25 slain police officers were given a funeral with full military honors presided over by Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim, who is in charge of police, and army chief of staff Gen. Sedki Sobhi. In a show of solidarity, the men's coffins, draped in red, white and black Egyptian flags, were carried by both army soldiers and police, and interim President Adly Mansour declared a nationwide state of mourning to mark their deaths.

Despite the violence, Cairo, a bustling metropolis of some 18 million people, began to regain a sense of normalcy, although the capital remained under a state of emergency and a dusk-to-dawn curfew. Daytime traffic was back to its normal congested levels, and stores were open. Government employees returned to work, and the Central Bank ordered banks, which were operating on a reduced 9 a.m.-noon schedule, to remain open for an additional hour today.

A handful of protests erupted in various parts of Cairo, but they were small and nonviolent.

Mr. Mubarak, 85, has been in detention since April 2011, two months after he was ousted in a revolution against his rule. He was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison last year for failing to stop the killings of some 900 protesters in the 18-day uprising. But his sentence was overturned on appeal, and he awaits retrial, along with his security chief and six top police commanders.

Two judicial officials said Mr. Mubarak could walk free this week or next, after a criminal court Monday ordered his release in a corruption case in which he and his two sons were accused of embezzling funds for maintaining presidential palaces. His sons were ordered kept in custody.

Monday's ruling, along with the fact that Mr. Mubarak had previously been ordered released in the killings of the protesters, raised the prospect of freedom for the former president, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. There will no longer be any grounds to hold him if a court accepts a petition by his lawyer requesting his release in a third case later this week or next.

But many analysts expressed skepticism, saying the political cost of freeing the former leader, widely hated for widespread abuses and repression during his 29 years in power, could keep him in jail. Leading rights campaigner Nasser Amin and rights lawyer Hoda Nasrallah said they did not expect Mr. Mubarak to be released, citing the country's delicate political and security situation as well as past incidents when authorities brought up new allegations to prevent his release.

Freeing Mr. Mubarak during one of the worst bouts of turmoil since his ouster would be a huge risk for the military-backed government. It could lend credibility to allegations that the mass protests that preceded the July 3 coup that toppled Egypt's first democratically elected leader were the work of Mubarak-era figures, searching for a way to reinstate the former regime.

Monday's attack targeting the police officers occurred near the border town of Rafah, in northern Sinai. A few hours later, militants shot to death a senior police officer as he stood guard outside a bank in el-Arish, another city in the largely lawless area, security officials said.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for either attack. The United States condemned the slaying of the police officers and repeated its commitment to help Egypt combat terrorism in Sinai. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also denounced the attack.

The attacks came a day after security forces killed 36 detainees during a riot on a prison-bound truck convoy north of Cairo. The killings came as police fired tear gas to free a guard trapped in the melee, security officials said. On Monday, the government ordered an inquiry into the deaths, which it blamed on armed men allegedly trying to help the 600 Muslim Brotherhood detainees escape. It gave no details.

The Brotherhood blamed Egypt's military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, and the interior minister for Sunday's killings. The group also demanded an international inquiry into the deaths. Amnesty International also sought a "full, impartial and effective" probe into the events.

The United States said it was troubled by the "suspicious deaths" of the prisoners. "We call on all Egypt's leaders and the international community to condemn such attacks without equivocation," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Mr. Morsi has been held in an undisclosed location since his ouster. On Monday, prosecutors ordered his detention for 15 days more in connection with allegations that he conspired to kill and torture protesters during mass demonstrations by the opposition outside his presidential palace in December 2012.

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