CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian prosecutors on Wednesday announced a new trial of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and the top leaders of his Muslim Brotherhood, accusing them of conspiring with Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran's Revolutionary Guard and militant groups to carry out a wave of terrorism to destabilize the country.
The charges, which carry a potential death penalty, are the most sweeping and heaviest accusations yet in a series of trials against the Brotherhood. The new trial of Morsi, the three top Brotherhood leaders and 32 other defendants appeared aimed at decisively crippling the top echelons of the group that dominated Egypt's political scene during Morsi's one-year presidency.
The timing appeared aimed at further tarnishing the Brotherhood among the public ahead of a key January referendum on a new constitution, a substantial rewrite of the charter largely drafted by Islamists under Morsi. The new military-backed government is seeking a strong "yes" vote for the constitution to show the legitimacy of the political transition process put in place after the military removed Morsi on July 3. Brotherhood supporters oppose the new document and have vowed protests against it.
Since the coup, prompted by massive protests calling for Morsi's removal, Egypt has been in continual unrest. Morsi supporters have been holding near daily protests demanding his reinstatement, met by a fierce security crackdown that has killed hundreds of people and arrested thousands of Brotherhood members. Meanwhile, a wave of retaliatory attacks by suspected Islamic militants have targeted Christians and security forces, and the Sinai Peninsula has been the center of a mounting militant insurgency.
Throughout, the new government has depicted the Brotherhood as a violent movement that threatened the nation and forced the military to remove it power. Previous, ongoing trials of Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders have focused on accusations the group is implicated in violence.
But the new charges take that claim to a new level, accusing the group of being enmeshed with terrorists since 2005 in deals aimed attaining and holding onto power, of plotting the collapse of police and prison breaks during the 2011 uprising that forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak out of power and of organizing the Sinai militant backlash.
"The biggest case of conspiracy in Egypt's history goes to the criminal court," proclaimed the title of the prosecution announcement.
Mohammed el-Damati, a defense lawyer for the Brotherhood, denounced the new trial — and those already started — as "political," aiming to give a legal veneer to the crackdown.
Rights lawyers, including some who believe Brotherhood members should be prosecuted for violence, have expressed similar worries that the wave of trials against them are mere political vengeance.
"The biggest victim now is justice and the truth," said Bahy Eddin Hassan, head of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, calling the new case part of the "ongoing contest" between the Brotherhood and the new government.
Morsi is already on trial on charges of inciting the murder of protesters against him while in office. After his ouster, Morsi spent four months in a secret military detention before he appeared in court to face the incitement charges in November. That trial resumes in January. Morsi's predecessor, Mubarak, is being tried over charges of failing to stop killings of protesters during 2011 uprising.
The prosecutor's office did not announce a date for the new trial's start — but officials suggested it would come after the Jan. 14-15 referendum, fearing an earlier start would fuel turmoil. The official main charge is "takhabur" to commit terrorism, an Arabic term meaning to be in communication with and reveal state secrets to foreign powers as part of a conspiracy.
In the new case, Morsi will be tried with 35 other co-defendants, including the top leader of the Brotherhood, Mohammed Badie, and Badie's two powerful deputies, Khairat el-Shater and Mahmoud Ezzat. Ezzat and around 17 of the defendants in the case are on the run, so will be tried in absentia. The defendants also include a number of members of the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
In their statement, the prosecutors claimed that Morsi and 35 others created an international terrorist network linking jihadi militant groups in the region along with Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard, exchanging and revealing state secrets, sponsoring terrorism and carrying out combat training.
After Morsi's ouster, "the Brotherhood and those terrorist groups carried out explosions and attacks against the military forces and police in Sinai to terrorize Egyptians and create chaos," the statement said, adding that the aim was to incite civil war, restore Morsi to office and "reclaim the Brotherhood's grip" on power.
The investigation also alleged that the group smuggled their own members into the Gaza Strip to receive military training from Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard to carry out operations in Sinai. It accused the group of preparing an alternative plan to declare "Islamic state" in the northern Sinai peninsula, where militant groups are powerful, if Morsi lost 2012 presidential elections.
Prosecutors said their investigation also showed the Brotherhood received funds from foreign countries. Investigators claim the plan began as earlier as 2005 and was activated in 2011 during the turmoil that accompanied the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.
Senior security and military officials told The Associated Press that the evidence includes alleged recordings of conversations between Morsi and his aides with al-Qaida militants during a visit by Morsi to Pakistan while president and with militant leaders in Egypt, along with confessions by detained militants. They also said that pardons issued by Morsi while president for jailed militants will also be cited against him in the case.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigations. The charges are also linked to two mass shootings killing security forces in Sinai in 2012 and 2013, the smuggling of weapons from Libya and Sudan and a prison break during the anti-Mubarak uprising in which Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders escaped from prison. An Egyptian court last year accused Morsi and the Brotherhood of conspiring with Hamas to carry out the breaks, in which 14 inmates died.
Asked about the timing of the case's announcement ahead of the referendum, one senior military officials said it is good to "let people know the reality of those people who are terrorists and conspiring against the state."
Hamas, which rules the Palestinian Gaza Strip territory bordering Egypt's Sinai, called the allegations "dangerous" and said it was being targeted.
"Al evidence has shown that we had nothing to do with Egypt's internal affairs," it said in a statement Wednesday. "We work to protect Egypt's borders and its national security, which is our national security."
The Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, on Wednesday called for a boycott of the upcoming the referendum.
Government officials had warned of attempts to create chaos on the day of the referendum, and state media reported that as many as 200,000 members of the security forces will be assigned to protect polling stations nationwide.
Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this report.