CAIRO, Egypt – Egypt acknowledged for the first time Thursday that it is holding Mohammed al-Zawahri, the brother of al-Qaida’s No. 2 man. Al-Zawahri had been believed in Egyptian police custody for at least three years, but the government never acknowledged it. He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1999 for his role in attacks by the militant group Islamic Jihad.
His older brother, Ayman al-Zawahri, is the top aide to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and allegedly once led the military wing of Egypt’s Jihad group. Ayman al-Zawahri also was sentenced to death in absentia in the same 1999 trial.
Interior Minister Habib el-Adly said Mohammed al-Zawahri would stand trial soon but did not say when.
Under Egypt’s laws, a suspect can be detained without charges or trial indefinitely. However, Egyptian law doesn’t provide for a new trial for a suspect who has been convicted in absentia in a military court and returns to the country. It only permits clemency pleas to the president.
Al-Zawahri’s relatives were surprised when they read a recent newspaper report about his whereabouts.
“We didn’t know if he was alive or dead,” Mahfouz Azzam, al-Zawahri’s great uncle, told The Associated Press.
Azzam, a lawyer, wondered why Egyptian authorities had held him so long without telling his family or giving him access to legal help.
“I, his mother and his family want to see him and send him food,” Azzam added. He said Mohammed al-Zawahri’s wife and six children are living in Egypt.
Azzam said he wouldn’t represent Mohammed al-Zawahri himself in a retrial because he objects to civilians being tried in military courts.
It wasn’t immediately clear why the government acknowledged holding Mohammed al-Zawahri, although Arab newspaper reports had recently suggested that he was dead, his body held by police and that American intelligence officials wanted a sample of his DNA.
Those reports came amid speculation that U.S. authorities had captured or killed bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. U.S. military officials have denied capturing bin Laden and have said nothing about netting his deputy.
Montasser el-Zayat, a prominent attorney who defended Mohammed al-Zawahri in his 1999 trial, said his former client is not known to have any ties to al-Qaida, though he had been an Islamic Jihad member for years and had spent time in Afghanistan in 1992-94 and returned in 1996.
Mohammed al-Zawahri was last known to be in the United Arab Emirates in 2001, el-Zayat said. El-Zayat said he had been in Afghanistan working with a Saudi-based Islamic relief agency, The International Committee for Islamic Relief.
El-Zayat, who defended Mohammed al-Zawahri in a 1999 trial, said he was sentenced on charges of membership in an illegal group, seeking to overthrow the Egyptian government by terrorist means, and was an accomplice in crimes to undermine the state.