Middle East Updates / Muslim Brotherhood Leaders Jailed for Insulting Court

Amnesty: 1,165 forcibly evicted from northern Sinai; Egypt court declares ISIS a terror group; Pope ends Turkey trip in Orthodox feast, meeting with refugees; Iran hospital manager attacked with acid.

Reuters

Haaretz's latest Middle East analyses and opinions: After Mubarak's acquittal, Egyptians left wondering where all the guilty people are

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Latest updates:

10:33 P.M. Muslim Brotherhood leaders jailed for insulting court a day after Mubarak verdict

An Egyptian judge sentenced the leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and 25 others on Sunday to three years in jail for insulting the court, a day after charges were dropped against ousted president Hosni Mubarak over the killing of protesters.

The Brotherhood's general guide, Mohamed Badie, is among hundreds of the group's members who have already received death sentences and lengthy jail terms in mass trials criticized by Western governments and human rights groups.

Coming on top of those verdicts, Sunday's ruling was made during the trial of more than 100 Brotherhood supporters on charges related to the storming of prisons during the popular uprising that ousted Mubarak in 2011.

The judge, Shaaban al-Shamy, decided to punish the defendants after a number of them began chanting "void, void" in response to some of his remarks. (Reuters)

7:55 P.M. Russia says oil-for-goods deal with Iran could be sealed soon

Russia hopes a deal to supply grain and equipment to Iran in return for oil can be reached soon, Russia's Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev said on Sunday.

"It (the deal) will affect not only grain, there are broad lists of goods ... We expect that (a deal) could be reached in the near future," Ulyukayev told reporters in Tehran, according to the RIA news agency.

In January, Reuters reported that Moscow and Tehran were discussing a barter deal worth up to $20 billion that would see Moscow buy up to 500,000 barrels a day of Iranian oil in exchange for Russian equipment and goods.

Such an agreement would enable Iran to significantly raise oil exports despite sanctions over its nuclear program, and give the slowing Russian economy a much-needed boost. But it would also strain relations between Moscow and the West at a time when they are already frayed over the Ukraine crisis.

The United States has warned Russia that an oil-for-goods deal could run counter to nuclear talks between world powers and Iran, and might fall foul of U.S. sanctions. (Reuters) 

6:00 P.M. Khamenei tells Iran armed forces to build up "irrespective" of diplomacy

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Sunday the armed forces should increase their combat capability regardless of political considerations, in an apparent allusion to continuing nuclear talks with the West aimed at easing tension in the Middle East.

"Given our vast maritime borders and the enemy's huge investments in this area, our armed forces should continuously improve their (combat) readiness, irrespective of political calculations," Khamenei told a gathering of senior navy officials during a ceremony to mark the "Navy Week" in Iran.

Khamenei, who commands all branches of the armed forces in addition to other key centers of power in the Islamic republic, did not mention any countries by name but he normally uses "enemy" to refer mainly to the United States and Britain -- both of which have intervened in Iran over the past century.

"Peacetime offers great opportunities for our armed forces to ... build up on preemptive capacities," said Khamenei, with state television playing excerpts of his speech. (Reuters) 

4:29 P.M. Egypt court declares ISIS a terror group

An Egyptian court has designated the Islamic State group a terrorist organization and banned it in the country.

The court ruling Sunday adds that it considers all of the Islamic State's affiliates to be terrorist organizations as well.

Ansar Beit al-Maqdis or Champions of Jerusalem, a jihadi group based in the Sinai Peninsula that regularly attacks Egyptian security forces, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group earlier this month.

The Islamic State group has carved out a self-styled caliphate in territory it controls in Syria and Iraq and demanded the loyalty of the world's Muslims. A U.S.-led coalition is now targeting it in airstrikes.

Other countries across the region also have banned the group. (AP)

3:18 P.M. Amnesty: Egypt forcibly evicted 1,165 families from northern Sinai

The human rights organization Amnesty International called on Egypt to stop the demolition of hundreds of homes and the forced evictions in Rafah and in other towns in northern Sinai, in order to create a buffer zone between the peninsula and the Gaza Strip.

“The scale of the forced evictions has been astonishing; the Egyptian authorities have thrown more than 1,000 families out of their homes in just a matter of days, flouting international and national law. Shocking scenes have emerged of homes in Rafah being bulldozed, bombed, with entire buildings reduced to piles of rubble and families forcibly evicted,” the organization's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa said.

According to Amnesty, at least 800 homes have been destroyed and 1,165 families evicted since the Egyptian military began the operation to create the buffer zone, after a terrorist attack on a military checkpoint in the area killed at least 33 soldiers on October 24.

Amnesty also noted that Egypt has also imposed a media blackout in northern Sinai, and warned against new legislation, currently pending approval by Egypt's cabinet, that would prohibit reporting news about the military without prior written consent. According to Amnesty, this legislation effectively exempts the military from media scrutiny. (Haaretz) 

3:00 P.M. Hamas: Mandate of Palestinian unity cabinet has expired

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said Sunday that that the six-month mandate given to the Palestinian unity cabinet, formed on June 2, has expired, and that talks between the Palestinian factions should resume ahead of the formation of a new cabinet.

Abu Zuhri said that any change to the cabinet or the extension of its mandate must be made on the basis of negotiations between all factions.

Abu Zuhri rejected claims that Hamas still holds the reins in the Gaza Strip: "As far as we're concerned, there's one government, and it has to function properly. If the government is unable to reconstruct the Strip that doesn't mean it has any less responsibility to do so." (Jack Khoury)

2:30 P.M. Pope calls for end to ISIS persecution of minorities

Pope Francis and the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians demanded an end to the persecution of religious minorities in Syria and Iraq on Sunday and called for dialogue with Muslims, capping Francis' three-day visit to Turkey with a strong show of Christian unity.

Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I issued a joint declaration urging leaders in the region to intensify help to victims of the Islamic State group, and especially to allow Christians who have had a presence in the region for 2,000 years to remain on their native lands.

"The terrible situation of Christians and all those who are suffering in the Middle East calls not only for our constant prayer but also for an appropriate response on the part of the international community," they wrote.

The statement was issued at the end of Francis' first trip to Turkey during which he prayed in one of Istanbul's most important mosques alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul, Rahmi Yaran. He was also set to meet with a few of the 1.6 million refugees who have crossed into Turkey to flee the IS assault in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

Francis, who represents the 1.2 billion-strong Catholic Church, and Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, called for "constructive dialogue" with Islam "based on mutual respect and friendship." (AP)

8:30 A.M. Iran hospital manager attacked with acid

Iran's police say two attackers on a motorbike threw acid in the face of a Tehran hospital manager, the latest in a string of such attacks that have mostly targeted women.

In a statement posted on its website Sunday, the police said Dr. Anvari, head of Ziaian hospital, was attacked late Saturday. Both of his eyes were damaged, and he was rushed to a hospital for treatment. The report did not give his first name, and his office declined to provide it, citing security concerns.

At least four women were attacked with acid in the central city of Isfahan in October, prompting public protests. It was not immediately clear if the attack in Tehran was related to those in Isfahan. (AP)

7:00 A.M. Pope ends Turkey trip with Orthodox feast, meeting with refugees

Pope Francis was due to end his three-day trip to Turkey on Sunday by celebrating an important Orthodox feast, cementing efforts to heal a 1,000-year-old schism between Eastern and Western Christianity.

He was scheduled to join Bartholomew - the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople and spiritual leader of the world's 300 million Orthodox - for the Feast of St Andrew, patron saint of the Orthodox world.

Christianity split into the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches in 1054. A reconciliation effort started 50 years ago with a historic meeting in Jerusalem between Pope Paul IV and Patriarch Athenagoras.

Francis and Bartholomew met several times on Saturday. The Orthodox leader thanked the pontiff for his pursuit of the "fraternal and stable advance ... for the restoration of full communion between our churches."

On Sunday, the pope was also set to meet with Christian refugees from Syria and Iraq, many of whom have fled the territorial advances of the Islamic State militia, which has targeted religious minorities.

Francis is the fourth pope to visit Turkey after Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. He arrived in Ankara on Friday and moved on to Istanbul a day later. During the trip, he called for religious tolerance, peace and Christian unity. (DPA)

Saturday night updates:

10:15 P.M. Approx. 400 killed in Benghazi in six weeks, say medics

About 400 people have been killed in six weeks of heavy fighting between Libyan pro-government forces and Islamist groups in Libya's second-largest city Benghazi, medical staff said on Saturday.

Backed by forces led by a former general, the newly formed government army launched in mid-October an offensive against Islamists in Benghazi, expelling them from the airport area and from several camps the army had lost during the summer. In the past three weeks the fighting has centred around Benghazi's commercial port where pro-government forces say Islamists are holed up. The port has had to close, disrupting food supplies in the eastern city. 

"The death toll has risen to 400," a source at a Benghazi hospital said, declining to be identified for security reasons. Medics at other hospitals in the city confirmed the estimated death toll. (Reuters)

8:47 P.M. Iraq strikes kill 17 in ISIS-held areas

Seventeen people were killed in Iraq on Saturday in air strikes targeting areas controlled by Islamic State militants, witnesses and an intelligence official said.

Two brothers who were members of the Albu Hishma tribe were mistakenly killed when an Iraqi military helicopter attacked the house of an Islamic State militant in the town of Yathrib, 90 km (56 miles), witnesses said. Fifteen people from the same tribe were then killed in an airstrike as they headed to the funeral of the brothers, said witnesses. Both accounts were confirmed by an intelligence official. 

It's not clear who carried out the second strike. (Reuters)