Former Egyptian Cabinet ministers in land scam case found not guilty

CAIRO (AP) - An Egyptian court on Saturday cleared two former Cabinet ministers of charges that they sold state land for cut-rate prices in the country's prized resort areas along the Red Sea.

Former tourism minister Zuheir Garana and ex-housing minister Ahmed Maghrabi were found not guilty in the case involving the sale of land in the resort of Ain Sokhna and the popular tourist city of Hurgahda. It is the latest verdict to clear former officials who served during the presidency of Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in a popular revolt in 2011. It comes at a time when several members of the former autocrat's inner-most circle have been released from prison in recent months.

Egypt's prosecutor had accused Garana of agreeing to sell land in Ain Sokhna to a businessman from the United Arab Emirates for US$1 (S$1.24) per sq m without an open bidding process in violation of the law. The two ex-ministers, along with another former government tourism official, Khaled Makhlouf, also were accused of profiting from the illegal acquisition of land in Hurghada.

The two former ministers, who were among the most prominent individuals in the former ruling party led by Mr Mubarak's son, Gamal, were earlier convicted in other corruption trials. Garana was sentenced in two separate cases to a total of eight years in prison following Mr Mubarak's ouster. In one of the cases, the ex-tourism minister was found guilty of intentionally damaging public finances by allowing businessmen to illegally acquire state land.

The new government is struggling to boost the once investor-friendly economy and raise foreign currency reserve levels that plunged following the uprising. Businessmen and politicians close to the presidency have spoken out in support of reconciliation talks with former officials to return millions of dollars earned under rampant corruption during Mr Mubarak's nearly three decade-long rule.

Maghrabi also was convicted in a previous trial of intentionally damaging public finances by allowing a businessman to acquire state land illegally. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Their requests for appeals in the earlier cases have been accepted. Security officials said the two would remain in prison to ensure they do not flee pending retrials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.