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Egypt candidate's trial is postponed

Will likely occur after presidential elections in Sept.

CAIRO -- A court yesterday postponed the forgery trial of Egypt's most prominent opposition presidential candidate until late September, almost certainly after the country's first contested election.

For Ayman Nour, that means campaigning for president under the shadow of criminal charges he says are fabricated and politically motivated.

For the government of President Hosni Mubarak, his likely rival, it means avoiding, for now, a trial that became embarrassing last week when a key witness recanted.

Nour and his lawyers said yesterday they were unhappy with the postponement until Sept. 25. No election date has been set, but it will almost certainly be held by mid-September.

''They want me to go into the elections burdened with this case, and don't want me to be found innocent before the elections," Nour said. ''That would be great publicity for me and embarrassment to the regime."

Egypt's prosecutor-general has said the case is an ordinary criminal one and not a political case.

Egypt's government also has said its judiciary is independent and not subject to political pressure.

Nour's arrest on Jan. 29 and his detention for 42 days without charges strained relations between the United States and Egypt, a key ally. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice canceled a visit in March and, when she visited in June, met with Nour and other opposition figures.

The United States has announced it is following the trial closely. Egypt's progovernment media have, in turn, cited US pressure as proof that Nour is an American agent.

As Nour entered the court yesterday, some in the crowd shouted, ''Go out, you American agent." Nour's supporters shouted back: ''Here comes the honest one," and ''Mubarak, round up your dogs."

Mubarak, 77, has been in power since 1981. He has not yet announced if he will run for a fifth six-year term but is expected to do so. He won his four previous terms in races that had no opponents, in straight yes-or-no referendums.

Nour, 40, who was not widely known in Egypt until his arrest, announced he would compete against Mubarak while he was still in jail earlier this year, shortly after Mubarak announced a constitutional amendment allowing the contested elections.

Nour has pleaded not guilty to forging signatures to get his opposition party, al-Ghad, or Tomorrow, officially registered last year. His codefendants claim Nour ordered them to commit the forgery, but Nour has said he does not even know them.

One defendant recanted his testimony in court yesterday.

The witness, Ayman Hassan, threw the trial into turmoil last week when he blurted out in court that he wanted to recant his prior accusations. The chief judge, Abdel Salam Gomaa, stormed out of the courtroom and adjourned the session before Hassan could explain. Hassan later told journalists that security forces had threatened to harm his young nieces if he did not implicate Nour.

Yesterday the judge gave Hassan a chance to talk, and his allegations were recorded in the court's documents. Hassan's lawyer, Mohammed Barakat, then demanded the judges ''protect his client from those who forced him to confess."

The chief judge also presided over a previous high-profile dissident case, that of Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a prominent Egyptian-American human rights activist sentenced to jail five years ago.

Ibrahim said that Nour's trial is similar to his in many ways, but that the country's political circumstances have changed.

''It's the same judge, same scenario, but the atmosphere and people have changed," Ibrahim said. ''People have grown more defiant to the authority, and there is more international pressure."

Ibrahim, 66, was arrested in June 2000 with associates who worked with him at the Ibn Khaldun Center, an independent think tank Ibrahim established in 1988. A security court convicted him in May 2001 of tarnishing Egypt's image, embezzlement, and accepting foreign money without government approval.

In Nour's case, despite the similarities, ''The regime is in a real predicament," Ibrahim said. He predicted the court might never reach a verdict.

If convicted, Nour would lose his right to run for office and could face a prison term of up to 15 years.

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