A nuclear engineer at Egypt’s state-run Atomic Energy Agency was convicted by an Egyptian court of spying for Israel on Monday and sentenced to life in prison.Mohamed Sayed Saber Ali was accused of taking documents from Inshas, the site of one of Egypt’s small nuclear reactors, and handing them for $17,000 to foreign contacts said to be working for Israeli intelligence.
The court also sentenced to life imprisonment two of Ali’s alleged contacts — an Irishman identified as Brian Peter and a Japanese named as Shiro Izo. It tried the two foreigners in absentia and Egypt has not said where they are.
Life imprisonment in the Egyptian system usually means 25 years. Remission for good behavior is possible.
Ali had pleaded not guilty to the charge of spying for Israel and he told reporters before the verdict that he was confident he would be acquitted.
After the verdict he looked shocked and made no comment in the few moments before guards took him out of the courtroom.
Ali admitted taking documents from his work place but he said that they had been published and were not secret.
He told the court that he had met several times in Hong Kong with the two foreign defendants without at first thinking they might be working for Israel, and he told Egyptian authorities of the meetings after growing suspicious of the two men.
“I became sure in the fourth meeting that I was dealing with a strange party that was working for a foreign intelligence apparatus,” he told the court.
He said he had told an Egyptian intelligence official in Saudi Arabia about his contacts. But the intelligence official, Ahmed Bahaeddin, said he thought Ali had contacted him because he was worried his spying for Israel might come to light.
MEETINGS IN HONG KONG
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said at the start of the trial that he had no information on the matter.
Egyptian trials of suspected spies for Israel have often soured relations between Israel and Egypt, which in 1979 became the first Arab country to make peace with the Jewish state. In April an Egyptian-Canadian dual citizen was sentenced to 15 years in prison for spying for Israel in a separate case.
Egyptian security officials arrested Ali, 35, in February when he arrived in Cairo from one of several trips to Hong Kong.
Prosecutors say the contacts told Ali in Hong Kong that they wanted him to work for their company from inside the nuclear agency and obtain documents about Egypt’s nuclear activities.
Ali told the court his contacts had at one point promised to give him a special communication device to plant in the Egyptian nuclear agency, and that the Egyptian official in Saudi Arabia had told him to get the device and return with it to Egypt.
But Ali said his contacts backed out of their promise after he failed a lie detector test. He said he had since become nearly certain that the men worked for Israel’s Mossad.
Egypt says Ali’s contacts were interested in information about the capability of the Inshas reactor, how many hours it operated, the type of experiments conducted with it, and any technical problems and the reasons for them.
They also wanted to know how frequently the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspects the reactor.
Egypt’s reactors are under IAEA supervision and the U.N. agency has had no serious complaints about Egyptian compliance with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Ali, who has a bachelor’s degree in nuclear engineering, got a job at the state Atomic Energy Agency in 1997. He aroused the suspicions of Egyptian authorities when he went to the Israeli embassy in Cairo in 1999 to ask for a grant to study nuclear engineering at Tel Aviv University.