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Egypt Lawyers Claim Government Meddling in Case Over Islands

Chief government lawyer, Rafiq Omar(c) at an appeals court hearing in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's government on Sunday defended its decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia at after the move was struck down by a lower court last week.

Egyptian lawyers opposed to the government's decision to hand over two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia are accusing authorities of meddling in court proceedings over the case, according to a motion obtained Monday.

The attorneys are citing a Cabinet minister's call for the court to issue a verdict on the case within a week, along with what they described as suspicious speed with which a date was set for a hearing on a government appeal.

The controversy over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir has sparked the largest anti-government street protests in Egypt since President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi took office two years ago. The government responded with the arrest of hundreds of protesters and activists, most of whom have been acquitted after brief trials or fined.

A lower tribunal last week struck down the handover deal but the government appealed that decision. A higher court on Sunday held its first hearing on the appeal, a raucous, 35-minute session in a courtroom packed by protesters and interrupted by heckles.

The lawyers submitted a seven-page motion asking the court's seven judges to recuse themselves. The court will rule July 3 on the motion, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Monday.

It cited the "unprecedented speed'' with which a date was set for a hearing, just hours after the government's appeal was filed. It also cited published comments by Parliamentary and Legal Affairs Minister Magdy el-Agaaty that the government wished for the appeal to be accepted and a final verdict on the case issued within a week.

The motion also cited media reports that Maj-Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, the defense ministry's top legal expert, paid an "unjustified'' visit to the court and met its president last week, ostensibly, it added, to obtain a copy of the lower court's ruling to strike down the maritime border agreement.

It also pointed to a conflict of interest, explaining that presiding judge Abdel-Fattah Abu el-Leil and another judge were retained, one by Cairo University and the other by the Foreign Ministry as consultants. Cairo University in April bestowed an honorary doctoral degree on King Salman, the Saudi monarch. The Foreign Ministry, alongside el-Sissi, Egypt's parliament speaker and other ministries, is appealing the lower court's verdict.

There was no official comment immediately available on the claims made by the motion — tabled by lawyer Mohammed Adel — but the government routinely insists that it does not interfere in the work of the judiciary and respects its verdicts.

The transfer of the islands was announced during a visit by King Salman in April, alongside billions of dollars in Saudi aid. Critics of the border accord accuse the government of selling off sovereign territory.

The government says the islands at the mouth of the Gulf of Aqaba always belonged to Saudi Arabia but were placed under Egyptian protection in 1950.