Egypt court acquits ex-oil minister of corruption charges

Egypt court acquits ex-oil minister of corruption charges

CAIRO - An Egyptian court acquitted former oil minister Sameh Fahmy of charges of selling cheap gas to Israel and squandering public funds and threw out his 15-year jail sentence, a judicial source said on Saturday.

Fahmy was first arrested and held in custody in April 2011. Prosecutors said former president Hosni Mubarak's government sold gas at preferential rates to Israel and other countries, costing Egypt billions of dollars in lost revenue.

The ruling is likely to raise fears among human rights activists that the old guard was making a comeback, especially as it came after a court in November dropped charges against Mubarak of conspiring to kill protesters in the 2011 uprising as well as graft changes related to gas exports to Israel.

Fahmy was sentenced in June 2012 and had successfully appealed his sentence in 2013. The Court of Cassation ordered a retrial and Fahmy was released shortly after.

The judicial source said the Cairo Criminal Court found Fahmy and five others innocent of the charges. "The verdict is the headline of the truth. The court heard the witnesses' statements and had faith that the defendants did not commit any violations and therefore the court issued the innocence verdict," Fahmy's lawyer, Gameel Saeed, told Reuters.

A security source said Fahmy did not appear at Saturday's court session.

Saturday's ruling did not apply to Hussein Salem, a major shareholder in East Mediterranean Gas, which exported the gas to Israel. Salem was given a 15-year prison sentence in absentia by the court in June 2012. He had fled to Spain after the uprising.

Many Egyptians who lived through Mubarak's era view it as a period of autocracy and crony capitalism. His overthrow led to Egypt's first free election. But the winner, Islamist president Mohamed Mursi, was ousted last year by then army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after mass protests against his rule.

Sisi, who became president last year, launched a crackdown on Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities have jailed thousands of Brotherhood supporters and sentenced hundreds to death in mass trials that have drawn international criticism.

By contrast, Mubarak-era figures are slowly being cleared of charges and a series of laws curtailing political freedoms have raised fears among activists that the old leadership is regaining influence.

The government denies allegations that freedoms gained after the 2011 uprising are being rescinded and Sisi has said Egypt faces a tough, prolonged campaign against militants.

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