Israeli Arab convicted as spy in Egypt Case deepens rift between nations

Netanyahu demands man's release

September 01, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

CAIRO, Egypt -- A state security court convicted an Israeli Arab of espionage yesterday and sentenced him to 15 years of hard labor, deepening the rift in relations between Israel and Egypt.

Azam Azam, a technician at a garment factory that was one of the few Israeli-Egyptian joint ventures in Egypt, had been accused in a plot to recruit an Egyptian textile worker as an economic spy for Israel. His fate is now in the hands of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who under Egypt's emergency laws has the power to set aside the verdict against Azam, the first Israeli ever to be convicted of spying against Egypt.

"We appeal to President Hosni Mubarak to pardon him," said Azam's older brother, Sami.

Israeli officials immediately condemned the verdict and demanded Azam's release. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement, called the ruling a very serious development. "Azam Azam is innocent and should not sit in prison for even one day," the prime minister said.

Other Israeli officials echoed the sentiment. President Ezer Weizman said: "We all know well that Azam is no spy and that he is innocent. The question is, what is going to happen now?"

Foreign Minister David Levy pledged, "We are not going to rest until every effort is made to bring this innocent man home."

Although Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, relations have been in a spiral since the election in May 1996 of Netanyahu, who Arabs believe has backtracked on Israel's commitments to Palestinians.

Azam has been in prison since November 1996, when he was arrested as he returned to his lodgings near Cairo's airport.

His detention coincided with the opening in Cairo last year of an important Middle East economic conference, and Azam's supporters and lawyer have suggested that the real reason for the case was to torpedo the then-budding commercial ties between the two countries and to discourage Egyptians from traveling to Israel for work.

According to Israel Radio, Netanyahu phoned Mubarak yesterday to express his surprise at the verdict and to ask Mubarak to have Azam released. Mubarak reportedly expressed his sorrow that Azam had been found guilty.

During a visit to Egypt earlier this year, Netanyahu had already pressed for Azam's freedom. At the time, Mubarak said he could not intervene until the court rendered its verdict.

Azam, 35, belongs to the Druze religious sect that some Arabs accuse of collaborating with Israel. According to family members, he had come to Egypt a few months before his arrest because it was an opportunity to make money and to work alongside his older brother, who was managing the factory near Cairo.

Also convicted yesterday was Azam's Egyptian co-defendant, Emad Ismail, who prosecutors said had been romantically entrapped by two female Israeli agents to spy for Israel while he was on a job-training course in Tel Aviv last year. Ismail and the two Israeli Arab women, the latter tried in absentia, were all given life sentences.

Pub Date: 9/01/97

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