updated 3/4/2004 11:39:29 AM ET 2004-03-04T16:39:29

Egypt acknowledged for the first time Thursday that it has in its prisons Mohammed al-Zawahri -- the brother of al-Qaida's No. 2 man -- who was sentenced to death in absentia in 1999 and allegedly once led the military wing of Egypt's Jihad group.

Al-Zawahri has been thought to be in Egyptian police custody for at least three years, but the government never acknowledged it. He was sentenced to death in absentia for his role in Jihad attacks inside Egypt.

His older brother, Ayman al-Zawahri, is the top aide to al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and once led Jihad. In the same military trial, he also was sentenced to death in absentia for Jihad acts.

“Mohammed al-Zawahri, brother of Ayman al-Zawahri, is alive and in one of the Egyptian prisons, and he will stand trial soon," Interior Minister Habib el-Adly told reporters Thursday.

He did not say when he would stand trial, how long he'd been in custody or who, if anyone, handed him over to Egypt.

Under Egypt's emergency laws, a suspect can be detained without charges or trial indefinitely. A suspect who has been convicted in absentia is granted a new trial on returning to the country.

It wasn't immediately clear why the government was acknowledging his detention now, though there have been Arab newspaper reports lately speculating that he was dead in police custody and that American intelligence officials were interested in getting hold of his remains for DNA sampling.

Those reports came as speculation was high that U.S. authorities had captured or killed bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahri. U.S. military officials have denied capturing bin Laden and have said nothing about netting his deputy.

Montasser el-Zayat, a prominent Egyptian attorney who defends many Islamic militants, said Mohammed al-Zawahri is not known to have any ties to al-Qaida, though he had been a Jihad member for years and had spent time in Afghanistan in 1992-94 and returned in 1996. It wasn't clear when he left the last time. His last known whereabouts, el-Zayat said, was the United Arab Emirates in 2001.

El-Zayat acted as Mohammed al-Zawahri's attorney for the 1999 trial but said he did not expect to represent him in the upcoming trial.

Al-Zawahri is an engineer by profession. El-Zayat said he was not a warrior, but was in Afghanistan working with a Saudi-based Islamic relief agency, The International Committee for Islamic Relief.

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