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Egyptian opposition figure defiant after conviction

FILE - In this Jan. 16, 2017 file photo, lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali, center, celebrates with other lawyers after winning a landmark case against the government, blocking its attempts to hand over control of two strategic Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, in Cairo, Egypt. On Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, an Egyptian court sentenced Ali, a prominent opposition leader widely expected to run against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in next year’s elections, to three months in prison over a charge of offending public morals for making an obscene finger gesture. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

CAIRO — An Egyptian opposition figure whose conviction for "offending public morals" could jeopardize his likely presidential run next year says the verdict is payback for winning a lawsuit against the government over its transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia.

Rights lawyer and activist Khaled Ali has declared his interest in running against President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in next year's election, but would be disqualified if his conviction is upheld by a higher court. He said in a Facebook post late Monday that he intended to appeal.

El-Sissi, who as military chief of staff led the overthrow of an elected Islamist president four years ago, is virtually certain to run for re-election next year, although he has yet to formally announce his candidacy. He is heavily favored to win a second, four-year term, amid a widespread crackdown on dissent and a relentless campaign by pro-government media against any potential challenger.

Ali didn't attend Monday's hearing, in which he was convicted of making an obscene finger gesture outside a Cairo courthouse in January, where he and other lawyers had won a case against the government, blocking its attempt to hand over control of the two islands to Saudi Arabia under a 2016 agreement. He was ordered to pay 1,000 Egyptian pounds (nearly $60) to remain free on bail.

Ali, who unsuccessfully ran in presidential elections held in 2012, has disputed the government's contention that Tiran and Sanafir have always been Saudi, but were handed over to Egypt for protection at a time of heightened Arab-Israeli tension in the early 1950s.

Parliament, which is packed with el-Sissi supporters, ignored the court ruling and hastily approved the Saudi-Egyptian agreement in June. El-Sissi ratified it shortly after.

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"We knew we will pay a high price when we decided to take up the case of Tiran and Sanafir," Ali wrote in his Facebook post. "The case is linked to the legitimacy of the current regime and the (January) court ruling reasserted that they (the islands) are Egyptian, thus placing the regime in a bind; so they fabricated the case in which a verdict was passed today."

He also repeated charges that the court ignored technical reports purportedly showing that the video of the alleged finger gesture was fabricated. His defense lawyers, he claimed, were not allowed to argue their case in court and their motions were ignored.

Amnesty International blasted Monday's verdict, saying it was a "clear signal" that authorities were determined to crush dissent and eliminate any potential rival in next year's elections.

On yesterday, three major Egyptian opposition parties and 15 rights groups said the verdict amounted to a "punishment" designed to deny Ali the right to run for president. In a joint statement, they questioned the fairness of Ali's trial and accused the court of "flagrantly" ignoring the rights of the defense.

"The trial provides new evidence of the sad state to which Egypt's justice system has plunged, from the politicization of the legal process and the violation of the basic rules of justice, to the use of the judiciary to take revenge on political opponents."

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