Saturday, June 26, 2010

US delivers new F-16s to Pakistan

The US has delivered the first batch of eighteen F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighters, branded new, to Pakistan as the two countries strengthen their military ties.

According to the US Department of Defense, three F-16s were scheduled to arrive in Pakistan on Saturday. Fifteen more will be delivered later in 2010 and 2011.

"This is the most visible part of a strong and growing relationship between the two air forces that will benefit us both near-term and long-term," the department's website quoted as saying Air Force Maj. Todd Robbins, a senior official coordinating military ties between Washington and Islamabad.

Pakistan is paying $1.4 billion for the new aircraft, in addition to $1.3 billion in upgrades to its existing F-16 fleet.

Delivery of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan was troubled in 1990 when the White House imposed sanctions on the country for its pursuit of nuclear arms. The sanctions failed to stop Islamabad.

Washington was previously opposed to the deal, citing high tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan in the volatile South Asian region.

The US says the aircraft will give the Pakistani Air Force an advantage against militancy. The new fighter is reportedly able to target precisely in all weather conditions, day and night.

The developments come at a time when the Pakistani military says it has launched a series of operations against Pakistani militants.

Pakistan's lawless tribal belt on the Afghan border remains a safe haven for militants, who have fled the 2001 US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Pakistan has suffered a wave of violence since the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf joined the US-led war on terror following the 9/11 attacks.

UK: Amanda Staveley finds that Islam moves closer to her heart

Amanda Staveley, the former girlfriend of the Duke of York, talks about falling in love with a Muslim.

Tim Walker. Edited by Richard Eden

Amanda Staveley has helped bring some of the Islamic world's biggest financial investments to this country. The 36-year-old Yorkshirewoman has now received an offer closer to her heart.

"My boyfriend is Muslim," disclosed Staveley, who was once predicted to become the Duke of York's second wife.

The former Businesswoman of the Year said on Friday that she was attracted to the Muslim faith. "I believe in monotheism," she said. "Whether it is Judaism, Islam, Christianity, there are more similarities than there are differences, but I am drawn to Islam."

Staveley did not disclose the name of her boyfriend, but said he had not encouraged her to join his faith. "I don't think he would ask me to convert," she said.

The businesswoman, who helped bring huge investments in Barclays bank and Manchester City football club from Gulf sheiks, has already turned her thoughts to babies. "If I had children? I would leave it up to my kids as to what decision they make in regard to what faith they want to be a part of," she said. "I think women in the Gulf are treated with a huge amount of respect."

She said of Prince Andrew: "Yes, we dated. I am very fond of him; he is a great friend. He has done a huge amount for British business as a trade ambassador. He is extremely well-liked in the Gulf. He promotes British business very heavily and he's got access where other people haven't, and he will do anything to help a British business. He works extraordinarily hard."

Muslim scholars urge Islamic world to back Turkey on Gaza

The International Union of Muslim Scholars General Assembly, which will take place on June 29, has been introduced at a press conference organized by the Union of NGOs of the Islamic World (UNIW) with the participation of Egyptian Muslim scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi and Necmi Sadıkoğlu, the secretary-general of UNIW.

The main agenda of the assembly for next week, according to the statements today, will be the Palestinian issue and the recent situation in Gaza. What Qaradawi primarily attracted attention to was the unity of the Islamic world. Indicating the genuine nature of this unity, Qaradawi noted that Islamic societies had many things in common and therefore had enormous power at its disposal. Nevertheless, remarked Qaradawi, the Islamic world could not derive the benefits of this great potential.

‘We need a couple of Erdoğans'

In this context, Qaradawi made several calls to all Islamic societies about the Palestinian issue and Turkey's stance. Palestinian lands are under the occupation of Israel, Qaradawi highlighted, stressing the importance of providing unity and solidarity among Islamic societies. The Islamic world should stand against injustice as a whole, and this requirement is indicated in the Holy Quran and the hadith, said Qaradawi. He noted that in overcoming all the controversies and conflict, Islamic societies should focus on the biggest problems of the Islamic world, one of the most important of which is the blockade in Gaza and the current situation in Palestine. He said Turkey has been a great example for the Islamic world in this sense by leading the flotilla and supporting the people of Gaza both at a social and government level. He added that Islamic societies should try to insist that aid reach Gaza and help the Palestinian people.

Qaradawi thanked Turkish society and the Turkish government because of their stance on the Gaza blockade, in addition to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who he qualified as one of the first people to stand against the injustice of Israel. Facing the criticism of the policies of the Egyptian government, he said the Islamic world needs "several Recep Tayyip Erdoğans" in order to overcome all the problems.

In relation to this, Qaradawi made a call to the whole Islamic world to stand with the Turkish people and help Turkish institutions. Noting that Turkey has been taking significant steps forward, he remarked that the Islamic world should support all Turkey's steps in every situation. At this point, Qaradawi pointed out that all people from different segments of society and different ideologies, from either the left or the right, should stand on the same side overcoming differences and support the Turkish government when it is the time to stand against injustice as in the case of Gaza.

Preventing Turkey's progress
Qaradawi indicated that the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey have been carried out in order to prevent the progress of the Turkish government. He noted that everybody is aware of the progress of the current Turkish government, and that in addition, there's a need for freedom of speech for the Kurdish people as well and as such called for peace on all sides of the conflict.

US: Muslim-turned-preacher out as Liberty's seminary dean; discrepancies about past led to inquiry

LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) - A Baptist minister who toured the country to talk about his conversion from Islam to Christianity is no longer the dean of Liberty University's theological seminary following allegations he fabricated or embellished facts about his past, the school said Friday.

The university founded by Rev. Jerry Falwell said that a board of trustees committee concluded Ergun Caner made contradictory statements. Although it didn't find evidence that he was not a Muslim who converted as a teenager, it did discover problems with dates, names and places he says he lived, a statement said.

Caner will remain on the Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary faculty, but won't be dean when his term expires on June 30.

"Caner has cooperated with the board committee and has apologized for the discrepancies and misstatements that led to this review," the school said.

A phone number listed for Caner in Lynchburg, where Liberty is located, was not in service.

An unlikely coalition of Muslim and Christian bloggers, pastors and apologists led the charge to investigate the preacher with video and audio clips they claim show Caner making contradictory statements.

Caner has been a celebrity in evangelical Christianity since 2001, when he and his brother began appearing on news shows and other venues to discuss Islam in the aftermath of 9/11.

The author and charismatic speaker became dean of the seminary at Liberty in 2005. Since then, enrollment has roughly tripled to around 4,000 students.

He told The Associated Press in 2002 that he was born in Sweden to a Turkish father and Swedish mother, who brought the family to Ohio in 1969, when he was about 3 years old. He said he accepted Christ as a teenager at a Baptist church in Columbus, and then pursued ministry, getting a degree from Criswell College, a Baptist school in Dallas.

Since questions arose about contradictory, he changed the biographical information on his website and asked friendly organizations to remove damning clips from their websites. But the questions didn't go away, leading to the Liberty investigation.

While few doubt that Caner was raised as a Muslim, they question changing biographical details in his speeches and whether he was a believer to the extent he told audiences.

U.S. Appears Uninterested in Repatriating Five American Muslims Jailed in Pakistan

by Mark Hosenball
U.S. officials are indicating that the Obama administration has little interest in exerting its diplomatic clout to try to ease the plight of five Muslim men from Northern Virginia who earlier this week were jailed by Pakistani authorities for 10 years on terror-related charges. But the head of a prominent U.S. Islamic group is suggesting that the administration was treating the Northern Virginia five under a double standard, noting that Gary Faulkner, an American arrested by Pakistani authorities while on a self-proclaimed mission to stalk and kill Osama bin Laden, was released and sent home only days after his arrest.

Three U.S. officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity, say that they were unaware of any effort or interest on the part of the Obama administration to pressure the Pakistanis to work out some kind of deal to allow the five an early release from Pakistani custody, perhaps in return for some sort of promise that they would serve out their sentences in an American prison. "We respect the decision of the Pakistani judicial system," says Dean Boyd, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department. The State Department's chief spokesman, P.J. Crowley, tells Declassified, "We closely monitored their cases and provided appropriate consular assistance to them and their families. We will continue to do that. They had legal representation and were subject to a transparent Pakistani legal process. We will continue to monitor their cases as they move through the appeal process."

The U.S. government appears to believe there is "good violence and bad violence," Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on Islamic-American Relations, tells Declassified, noting that the five young Northern Virginia Muslims are likely to remain in jail for a decade, while Colorado construction worker Gary Faulkner, who was arrested while trying to cross from Pakistan into Afghanistan armed with a pistol, sword and night-vision goggles, was quickly released and allowed to return to the U.S. But a senior U.S. official, who asked for anonymity when addressing a politically sensitive issue, retorts, "Rambo [Faulkner] did not leave behind a jihad videotape. There is no comparability to the two cases."

U.S. officials say that from what they can tell, the Northern Virginia Five never really succeeded in their effort to volunteer as fighters with an Islamic militant group. Instead, according to officials and news reports about the case, members of two militant groups whom the Virginians met with, Jaish-i-Muhammad and Jamaat-ud-Dawa, apparently rejected their approaches, and they never really succeeded in hooking up with jihadists before they were arrested. While there are no indications that criminal charges are pending against the men in the United States, officials would not entirely rule out the possibility that such charges could be filed if the men were to be allowed to return here.
Awad disputes that the men's trial was transparent, claiming it was conducted in secret and that the defendants were tortured by their Pakistani captors. He says their local defense lawyer said evidence against them, which reportedly included a dozen e-mail messages the defendants allegedly exchanged with a notorious Pakistani militant and maps of a Pakistani nuclear plant, was fabricated by Pakistani authorities. "At least the U.S. government should investigate the torture allegations," Awad says.

The Northern Virginia Five are part of what Obama administration officials say is a disturbing and growing pattern of involvement and interest by Muslim American citizens and residents in violent jihad. Earlier this week, Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani immigrant who became a U.S. citizen just over a year ago, entered a guilty plea to terrorism charges stemming from his unsuccessful May 1 attempt to detonate a car bomb in New York's Times Square, defiantly telling a federal judge in Manhattan, "I want to plead guilty and I'm going to plead guilty a hundred times over, because until the hour the U.S. pulls its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan, and stops the drone strikes in Somalia and Yemen and in Pakistan, and stops the occupation of Muslim lands, and stops killing the Muslims, and stops reporting the Muslims to its government, we will be attacking U.S., and I plead guilty to that."

X factor for Muslim preachers in Malaysia wows television audience

A Malaysian version of X factor has forsaken the world of pop to conduct a search for the nation's next religious leader.

Barney Henderson in Kuala Lumpur

Contestants on Young Imam chant passages from the Koran, not pop covers.

While the concept is based on the hit British and American shows, the young Malaysian men are out to prove they are the best mullah in the land.

The show, now in its third week, is fast becoming a hit in the Muslim-majority country.
The judge who delivers their fate as the lights dim and contestant stand nervously is no Simon Cowell.

Hasan Mahmood, the former grand mufti of Malaysia's national mosque, presides over the ten male contestants aged between 19 and 27.

Instead of a lucrative record deal, the winner will be given a post as an imam at a mosque in Kuala Lumpur, a Haj pilgrimage to Mecca and a full scholarship to the Madinah international university in Saudi Arabia.

Just like their counterparts in the West, the Young Imam competitors are fast becoming icons to young viewers.

The show's Facebook page has over 25,000 fans, including prospective mothers-in-law looking to marry off their daughters.

The aspiring imams are given clerical tasks to complete each week.

The first challenge was to bathe and bury a body that had lain unclaimed in a morgue for one month. The man had died of the AIDS virus. They washed the body, wrapped it in white cotton, offered prayers and buried it, with some contestants shedding tears at the grave.

"Seeing and handling a dead body is the most difficult ritual they could face as an imam. The ten boys were brilliant, but the crew was not so good," said Izelan Basar, channel manager of Astro Oasis, which screens the show. "The producer fainted and several crew members vomited."

Other tasks have included trying to teach young street racers caught by the police aboutIslam and visiting an orphanage. The group is secluded from the outside world in a dormitory on a mosque compound.

Each contestants has to deliver a sermon in a mosque every Friday. Last week, 25-year-old Sharafuddin Suaut was sent home for a lack of clarity over finer points of Islamic theory.

"The aim of the show is to get both the contestants and the audience to know, understand and practice their religion in an entertaining way," Mr Izelan explained. "The reactions to the show have been hugely positive and we are looking forward to many new seasons."

With the youthful contestants dressed in fashionable, sharp suits, the show appears to be keen to move away from the stereotype of elderly imams in flowing robes. The television channel collaborated with the government to ensure religious sensitivities are not breached.

"We have been very careful not to cross any lines or offend anyone and to take a middle path," Mr Izelan said.

Malaysia's reputation as a progressive Muslim country has suffered recently, with the firebombing of churches in January, the caning of three Muslim women for adultery in February and news last week that al-Qaeda-linked extremists have been recruiting from Malaysian universities.

Dozens of Americans believed to have joined terrorists

Threat called 'worrisome'

By Eli Lake

Dozens of Americans have joined terrorist groups and are posing a threat to the United States and its interests abroad, the president's most senior adviser on counterterrorism and homeland security said Thursday.

"There are, in my mind, dozens of U.S. persons who are in different parts of the world, and they are very concerning to us," said John O. Brennan, deputy White House national security adviser for homeland security and counterterrorism.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Brennan said he would not talk about lists of targeted American terrorists. However, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies have been tracking down U.S. nationals and U.S. passport holders who pose security threats, like the Yemen-based al Qaeda cleric Anwar al-Awlaki, he said.

"They are concerning to us, not just because of the passport they hold, but because they understand our operational environment here, they bring with them certain skills, whether it be language skills or familiarity with potential targets, and they are very worrisome, and we are determined to take away their ability to assist with terrorist attacks," Mr. Brennan said.

The remarks came in response to questions about procedures used by the president to order lethal strikes on U.S. citizens who have joined al Qaeda or other terrorist groups.

On Feb. 3, Dennis C. Blair, then director of national intelligence, said in congressional testimony that special permission must first be obtained by military or intelligence forces before what he termed "direct action" strikes against American citizens.

The main weapon in recent CIA and U.S. military counterterrorism operations has been attacks with missile-equipped unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. The administration has said it has killed dozens or perhaps scores of terrorists with these strikes over the past several years.

That practice was criticized in a report earlier this month authored by Philip Alston, the independent U.N. investigator on extrajudicial killings, who said the practice may violate international humanitarian law.

The American Civil Liberties Union in a letter to Mr. Obama on April 28 warned that the current program to kill terrorists in foreign countries would create a precedent for other countries to kill suspected terrorists all over the world.

The American-born cleric and U.S. citizen who now resides in Yemen is thought to be high on the list of those targeted for killing by the United States.

Mr. Brennan would not comment on the details of lethal operations or the procedure for targeting Americans.

"If a person is a U.S. citizen, and he is on the battlefield in Afghanistan or Iraq trying to attack our troops, he will face the full brunt of the U.S. military response," Mr. Brennan said. "If an American person or citizen is in a Yemen or in a Pakistan or in Somalia or another place, and they are trying to carry out attacks against U.S. interests, they also will face the full brunt of a U.S. response. And it can take many forms."

Mr. Brennan added, "To me, terrorists should not be able to hide behind their passports and their citizenship, and that includes U.S. citizens, whether they are overseas or whether they are here in the United States. What we need to do is to apply the appropriate tool and the appropriate response."

Attempts by U.S. citizens at carrying out unsophisticated terrorist attacks in the United States have increased sharply in recent years. The latest example was Faisal Shahzad, who confessed in court this week that he left a vehicle rigged with explosives in New York's Times Square on the evening of May 1. In court testimony, he also admitted to having trained in bomb making with the Pakistani Taliban.

A recent Rand Corp. study of so-called "homegrown" U.S. radicalism reported a significant increase in indictments of Americans who were recruited for jihadist violence in the past two years.

The report said 81 were indicted for terrorism-related crimes between 2002 and 2008. Forty-two people were indicted for such crimes in 2009, and two more have been indicted in 2010.

The study, authored by former U.S. special-operations officer Brian Jenkins, concluded that one in 30,000 Muslim Americans is vulnerable to radicalization, a fact "suggesting an American Muslim population that remains hostile to jihadist ideology and its exhortations to violence."

In the interview Thursday, Mr. Brennan also said that the vision of Islam put forth by Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders was widely rejected by the Muslim world. Last month, Mr. Brennan drew criticism for a speech in which he said, "Jihad is holy struggle, a legitimate tenet of Islam, meaning to purify oneself or one's community."

Mr. Brennan said that he opposed granting any legitimacy to what he called al Qaeda's "twisted" interpretation of Islam.

"Clearly, bin laden and al Qaeda believe they are on this very holy agenda and this jihad," he said. "However, in my view, what we cannot do is to allow them to think, and the rest of the world to think, and for the future terrorists of the world to believe al Qaeda is a legitimate representation of jihad and Islam."

Mr. Brennan also said that the U.S. law enforcement community has the means to monitor Web forums affiliated with al Qaeda that have in the past proven to be a gateway for recruitment into the terrorist organization.

But he also said that any investigations or monitoring of such sites needed to first pass a threshold of probable cause.

"There needs to be some type of predicate or premise for there to be reasonable suspicion that someone is engaged in activity that is unlawful," he said. "The mere engagement in political speech, even if it is radical, is not in itself a cause for investigation."

Mr. Brennan toward the end of the interview acknowledged that, despite some differences, there is considerable continuity between the counterterrorism policies of President Bush and President Obama.

"There has been a lot of continuity of effort here from the previous administration to this one," he said. "There are some important distinctions, but sometimes there is too much made of those distinctions. We are building upon some of the good foundational work that has been done."

Israelis open fire on demo, one injured

A Palestinian man was injured when Israeli soldiers opened fire on protesters during a weekly non-violent demonstration against the apartheid wall in the village of Bil'in in the central West Bank.

After Friday prayers, dozens of Palestinian demonstrators, along with left-wing Israeli activists, protested against the al-Quds (Jerusalem) municipality's plan to demolish 22 Palestinian homes to make way for an archaeological park in the al-Bustan area of East al-Quds.

They marched toward the apartheid wall that separates Palestinian villagers from their occupied lands and called for a complete halt to Israeli policies targeting the Palestinians of East al-Quds and a freeze on the illegal settlement activity in the city and in the entire West Bank.

As soon as the protesters reached the gate of the apartheid wall, the Israeli soldiers fired rubber-coated-steel bullets and tear gas at them. A bullet hit a 50-year-old university teacher in his hand.
Dozens of people also suffered from the effect of tear gas inhalation.

Closing Guantánamo Fades as a Priority

WASHINGTON - Stymied by political opposition and focused on competing priorities, the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guantánamo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013.

When the White House acknowledged last year that it would miss Mr. Obama's initial January 2010 deadline for shutting the prison, it also declared that the detainees would eventually be moved to one in Illinois. But impediments to that plan have mounted in Congress, and the administration is doing little to overcome them.

"There is a lot of inertia" against closing the prison, "and the administration is not putting a lot of energy behind their position that I can see," said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and supports the Illinois plan. He added that "the odds are that it will still be open" by the next presidential inauguration.

And Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also supports shutting it, said the effort is "on life support and it's unlikely to close any time soon." He attributed the collapse to some fellow Republicans' "demagoguery" and the administration's poor planning and decision-making "paralysis."

The White House insists it is still determined to shutter the prison. The administration argues that Guantánamo is a symbol in the Muslim world of past detainee abuses, citing military views that its continued operation helps terrorists.

"Our commanders have made clear that closing the detention facility at Guantánamo is a national security imperative, and the president remains committed to achieving that goal," said a White House spokesman, Ben LaBolt.

Still, some senior officials say privately that the administration has done its part, including identifying the Illinois prison - an empty maximum-security center in Thomson, 150 miles west of Chicago - where the detainees could be held. They blame Congress for failing to execute that endgame.

"The president can't just wave a magic wand to say that Gitmo will be closed," said a senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking on a sensitive issue.

The politics of closing the prison have clearly soured following the attempted bombings on a plane on Dec. 25 and in Times Square in May, as well as Republican criticism that imprisoning detainees in the United States would endanger Americans. When Mr. Obama took office a slight majority supported closing it. By a March 2010 poll, 60 percent wanted it to stay open.

One administration official argued that the White House was still trying. On May 26, Mr. Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee reiterating the case.

But Mr. Levin portrayed the administration as unwilling to make a serious effort to exert its influence, contrasting its muted response to legislative hurdles to closing Guantánamo with "very vocal" threats to veto financing for a fighter jet engine it opposes.

Last year, for example, the administration stood aside as lawmakers restricted the transfer of detainees into the United States except for prosecution. And its response was silence several weeks ago, Mr. Levin said, as the House and Senate Armed Services Committees voted to block money for renovating the Illinois prison to accommodate detainees, and to restrict transfers from Guantánamo to other countries - including, in the Senate version, a bar on Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Somalia. About 130 of the 181 detainees are from those countries.

"They are not really putting their shoulder to the wheel on this issue," Mr. Levin said of White House officials. "It's pretty dormant in terms of their public positions."

Several administration officials expressed hope that political winds might shift if, for example, high-level Qaeda leaders are killed, or if lawmakers focus on how expensive it is to operate a prison at the isolated base.

A recent Pentagon study, obtained by The New York Times, shows taxpayers spent more than $2 billion between 2002 and 2009 on the prison. Administration officials believe taxpayers would save about $180 million a year in operating costs if Guantánamo detainees were held at Thomson, which they hope Congress will allow the Justice Department to buy from the State of Illinois at least for federal inmates.

But in a sign that some may be making peace with keeping Guantánamo open, officials also praise improvements at the prison. An interagency review team brought order to scattered files. Mr. Obama banned brutal interrogations. Congress overhauled military commissions to give defendants more safeguards.

One category - detainees cleared for release who cannot be repatriated for their own safety - is on a path to extinction: allies have accepted 33, and just 22 await resettlement. Another - those who will be held without trials - has been narrowed to 48.

Still, the administration has faced a worsening problem in dealing with the prison's large Yemeni population, including 58 low-level detainees who would already have been repatriated had they been from a more stable country, officials say.

The administration asked Saudi Arabia to put some Yemenis through a program aimed at rehabilitating jihadists but was rebuffed, officials said. And Mr. Obama imposed a moratorium on Yemen transfers after the failed Dec. 25 attack, planned by a Yemen-based branch of Al Qaeda whose members include two former Guantánamo detainees from Saudi Arabia.

As a result, the Obama administration has been further entangled in practices many of its officials lamented during the Bush administration. A judge this month ordered the government to release a 26-year-old Yemeni imprisoned since 2002, citing overwhelming evidence of his innocence. The Obama team decided last year to release the man, but shifted course after the moratorium. This week, the National Security Council decided to send the man to Yemen in a one-time exception, an official said on Friday.

Meanwhile, discussions have faltered between Mr. Graham and the White House aimed at crafting a bipartisan legislative package that would close Guantánamo while bolstering legal authorities for detaining terrorism suspects without trial.

Mr. Graham said such legislation would build confidence about holding detainees, including future captures, in an untainted prison inside the United States. But the talks lapsed.

"We can't get anyone to give us a final answer," he said. "It just goes into a black hole. I don't know what happens."

In any case, one senior official said, even if the administration concludes that it will never close the prison, it cannot acknowledge that because it would revive Guantánamo as America's image in the Muslim world.

"Guantánamo is a negative symbol, but it is much diminished because we are seen as trying to close it," the official said. "Closing Guantánamo is good, but fighting to close Guantánamo is O.K. Admitting you failed would be the worst."

Thom Shanker contributed reporting.

Mohamed ElBaradei joins Egyptian sit-in over police death case

Opposition figurehead and former head of nuclear watchdog in his most direct challenge to President 

Hosni Mubarak

Jack Shenker in Cairo
Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog, joined about 4,000 Egyptians at a rare large-scale street protest today, in his most direct challenge to President Hosni Mubarak since returning to the country earlier this year.

The Nobel laureate turned opposition figurehead joined the sit-in in Alexandria over the case of a man allegedly killed by plainclothes policemen.

Numerous witnesses say Khaled Said, 28, died after being kicked and punched by the officers before eventually smashing his head against a marble shelf in an internet cafe on 6 June . Security officials claim Said died of asphyxiation after he swallowed a packet of narcotics hidden under his tongue.

The officers dragged Said into their car and drove off, before returning to dump his body on the street in front of the cafe, the witnesses said.

ElBaradei, who has said he will consider challenging Mubarak for the presidency next year if conditions are free and fair, called the incident an "egregious humanitarian violation" and revealed a "lack of sanctity of human life".

Human Rights Watch called for the prosecution of the two officers, who remain on active duty. The campaign group also criticised the police investigation and the interior ministry, which accused Said of being a wanted criminal, an accusation his family denies.

"Even if Khaled Said had been wanted, that does not give licence to police to attack and murder him in cold blood," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director for the organisation.

Graphic photos of Said's mangled face have spread across the internet, prompting protests in Cairo and Alexandria, which have been broken up by the police. Today's protest was the largest so far.

Street demonstrations in Egypt are not uncommon, with regular protests over food prices and low wages but most of them remain very small and are quickly broken up by riot police. The size and scale of today's events in Alexandria, a stronghold of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement, suggest that Said's death has struck a chord.

ElBaradei and a group of other prominent opposition figureheads - including former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who was jailed after his unsuccessful attempt to unseat Mubarak in 2005 - arrived in Alexandria earlier to meet Said's family. After Friday prayers, the protesters congregated at a mosque where they were met by a huge contingent of riot police.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency law for 29 years, offering effective immunity to many elements of the police and security services.

The death of Said, who has become known as the "emergency law martyr", is viewed by many as a potential turning point for the growing opposition movement.

ElBaradei is believed to have left the protest early after hundreds began chanting anti-Mubarak slogans. He was keen to avoid accusations that he was exploiting Said's death for political gain and had called for the protest to be a silent one.