8 Egyptian Karine A Sailors Released in Possible Deal for Convicted Spy Azzam

Eight Egyptian seamen from the Karine A weapons ship captured by Israel in January have been released from Ramle's Ma'asiyahu Prison. The move may be part of a deal to free Azzam Azzam, an Israeli imprisoned in Egypt in 1997 as a convicted spy.

A Jordanian seaman who was on board the ship, which was carrying arms to the Palestinian Authority when Israeli commandos captured it on its way to Gaza, remains in Israeli custody.

Last week, attorneys representing the eight Egyptians began proceedings to file a High Court petition to demand their release. The Justice Ministry confirmed the eight were released on the basis of a decision made by Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein, which, according to a government source, was opposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. A Justice Ministry spokesman said the decision was made "after the prime minister accepted the legal opinion of the attorney general."

Sharon's spokesman refused to say if the prime minister knew about, and agreed to, the release, and did not address whether it was part of a deal with Egypt.

In early January, commandos captured the Karine A weapons ship in the Red Sea, on its way to Gaza. Nine seamen were on board - the eight Egyptians and a Jordanian. After being interrogated, they were moved to the illegal aliens ward at Ma'asiyahu Prison. On July 24, the head of the supervisory court for illegal aliens, attorney Sharon Bavli-Lary, who had interviewed the nine, asked Interior Minister Eli Yishai to explain why they had yet to be expelled from the country. Yishai said that the security services had asked him to delay the deportation.

Bavli-Lary informed Yishai Wednesday that if the nine were not released by tomorrow she would order their release. At the same time, Al Canon, a legal aid society, began proceedings to appeal to the High Court of Justice in requesting the Jerusalem District Attorney to order their release.

The eight were released Sunday.

A government source said the release came as the result of conversations between Minister Danny Naveh and a senior Egyptian official prior to Naveh's departure last Sunday to Egypt for meetings with President Hosni Mubarak's presidential adviser, Osama el Baz, and Azzam, who is servong a 15-year sentence. However, a spokeswoman for Naveh denied any connection between the release of the Karine A seamen and the meetings.

Naveh, who went to Egypt at Sharon's request, said that his meeting with Azzam was "very hard," and that the Israeli had "given up hope."

Eight allege torture

After arriving at Cairo airport last night, Mohammed Assad al-Haggag, 37, said he and his colleagues were subjected to mental and physical torture in Israeli custody, and were forced to confess that the ship was carrying weapons from Iran to the PA.

"Ten months passed on me in jail... where Israeli investigators tried to force me to confess that the ship was carrying a weapons shipment, and when I refused, I was severely tortured and tied to a chair for long periods," Haggag said.

He said the ship carried food from Sudan to Yemen, where he joined the rest of the crew. After unloading the cargo in Yemen and Jordan, it stopped "due to technical problems" in the Red Sea where boxes from a small boat were transferred to the ship. Haggag said he never found out what was in the boxes.

Two days later, on January 2, the ship was seized by Israeli commandos, and the weapons found inside the boxes were displayed. Haggag said the ship was directed to Eilat port and the crew was arrested.