updated 4/15/2008 9:05:28 PM ET 2008-04-16T01:05:28

An Egyptian military court on Tuesday convicted 25 key members of Egypt's largest opposition group and sentenced them to up to 10 years in jail, a security official said.

The charges against the Muslim Brotherhood members included money laundering and terrorism, but it was not immediately clear if the 25 were found guilty of both offenses, according to the official.

The official, who attended the trial at the military court north of Cairo but spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, also said that 15 other defendants were acquitted.

The verdict in the yearlong trial came amid a government crackdown on the Brotherhood and unrest in Egypt over rising food prices and stagnant wages. Authorities have detained more than 800 Brotherhood members so far this year in an effort to thwart its influence as President Hosni Mubarak, 79, enters his 27th year in power.

Amnesty International called Tuesday's sentences "a perversion of justice" and demanded the men be released and retried in a civilian court.

"Today's sentences leave little doubt that the Egyptian authorities are determined to undermine what has become the main opposition group in the country," the London-based human rights group said in a statement.

Defense lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud said the judge entered the courtroom, issued the ruling and left without notifying the opposition group's lawyers standing outside.

Among those sentenced was the Brotherhood's chief strategist, Khayrat el-Shater, and its prominent financier, businessman Hassan Malek. They received seven-year sentences each.

Their property, believed to be worth millions of dollars, also was confiscated — a harsh blow to the group's financial bases, the lawyer said.

Seven of the charged in the Tuesday verdict were tried in absentia since they are outside the country, and some of their whereabouts are unknown.

Five of the absent received 10-year prison terms, including Youssef M. Nada, a Swiss-based Egyptian-born businessman whose company has been listed by the United States since 2001 as an organization accused of helping fund terrorism.

Among those acquitted were a journalist and another businessman, Abdel-Rahman Saudi, who runs a supermarket chain in Egypt.

A recent amendment to the Egyptian judicial system allows defendants to appeal within 60 days, Abdel-Maksoud said.

'Bunch of gangsters'
Mohammed Mahdi Akef, the group's supreme leader, slammed the verdict, describing Egyptian authorities as "corrupt" and a "bunch of gangsters." Akef said there was "no evidence" against them and that he had "expected the court to acquit them all."

Before the verdict, hundreds of policemen set up checkpoints on the road leading to the court. They searched vehicles, chased away reporters and family members of the defendants.

At least 20 people, including relatives and reporters, were detained, according to a security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.

Those sentenced Tuesday have been in custody since December 2006.

Their arrests were believed to have been sparked by a militia-style demonstration by student Brotherhood members from the Al-Azhar university in Cairo. At the time, the demonstrators wore masks similar to those of the militant Palestinian Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah group. The demonstration prompted a government investigation into whether the Brotherhood had resurrected its military wing.

After their arrests, the Brotherhood figures were referred to a military court, following a 1981 Egyptian Emergency Law that allows the president to refer civilians to military tribunals.

Brotherhood members have since been routinely tried before military courts, but the latest trial is the largest in years.

The Brotherhood won 88 of parliament's 454 seats in the 2005 elections, with its candidates running as independents.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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