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Mobinil to appeal Israel phone intercept verdict

Egyptian economic court sentences four Mobinil managers to prison for their role in network that meant phone calls could be intercepted by Israel; mobile operator says it will contest

Yasmine Wali, Monday 21 May 2012
Mobinil
Mobinil retail outlet in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
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Egypt's Mobinil has vowed to contest a Sunday court ruling which saw four senior staff sentenced to prison for adapting a transmitter in the Sinai, a move the prosecution said allowed Israel to monitor and record Egyptian phone calls.
 
"We're very concerned [about the ruling]. We are confident of the innocence of our employees," Zeyad Mourad, a Mobinil spokesman, told Ahram Online.
 
"We are sure that none of [them] were knowingly involved in this activity."
 
The mobile operator's employees, who have not been named, were found guilty of violating telecoms regulations and endangering national security. They were handed prison sentences ranging from three to five years.
 
A press statement from Mobinil on Sunday denied any intentional involvement in relaying international calls to Israel and said the firm would appeal the court ruling. 
 
Mobinil's statement added that the company held a "different opinion" on the legal principles upon which Sunday's ruling was made.
 
Under Egyptian law, all international calls in and out the country are sub-contracted to state-owned landline monopoly Telecom Egypt, which is compensated with a slice of revenue from mobile operators. 
 
In the past some individuals have tried to illegally circumvent this set-up by transfering calls by the internet or with other equipment.
 
Investigations into the call transfers began in January 2011 after a Jordanian telecoms engineer was arrested and charged with spying for Israel.
 
Bashar Abu Zaid is accused by Egypt's Emergency Security Court of using his technical expertise to transfer international phone calls to the self-proclaimed Jewish state.
 
Mobinil became embroiled in the case when investigations revealed the use of the company’s transmission towers in the town of El-Owga in northern Sinai, just two miles from the Israeli border. 
 
According to Sunday's court's ruling, Abu Zaid transferred funds to 61 different Mobinil phone SIM cards, some of which were owned by people involved in the case and used to transmit calls to Israel via the internet.
 
It added that some of the contacts stored on Abu Zaid's mobile phone had recharged his phone with large amounts of credit. 
 
The court ruling said that a technical inspection of the Mobinil tower showed the firm's engineers had raised the receiver by seven metres -- something it described as unnecessary in an area of low population density with no high buildings.
 
The change allowed a strong mobile signal to be accessible inside Israeli territory for at least 10 kilometres. In contrast, the signal in Egypt itself was said to be weak and susceptible to disconnects.
 
The ruling said that Mobinil had exceeded the level of coverage for border areas stipulated by the country's National Telecom Regulatory Authority, endangering Egyptian national security by giving Israel the ability to monitor calls.
 
A nearby Israeli military base was within receiving distance of the tower's signal, it added.
 
Mobinil's statement after the judgement said its employees had taken all security procedures into consideration when adjusting the Sinai transmitter. 
 
"However, violations to the system can occur without the company knowing, and this can happen in Egypt or any other country," the company added.
 
The effect on domestic mobile services, thanks to the weak and intermittent signal on the Egyptian side, cost the national economy some LE210,000, the ruling claims.
 
The Mobinil employees were initially referred to the Supreme National Security Prosecution which then transferred it to the economic court, indicating the legal infractions were purely of a business nature.
 
The first and second of the accused -- all of whom are unnamed -- were charged with violating licensing conditions by ordering the construction of the Owga tower without permission from the NTRA.
 
Their installation of receivers also failed to take into account NTRA health and environment regulations, the findings said. 
 
The alleged Jordanian spy Abu Zaid and Israeli Mossad agent Ophir Harare, who fled Egypt, still await trial in front of the country's State Security Emergency Court.
 
The Jordanian engineer previously hurled an accusation at Egyptian billionaire Naguib Sawiris, a founding member of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and former chairman of Mobini, during a sesson at the State Security Emergency Court on 6 December.
 
"Sawiris tried to poison me while I was in prison so that the truth dies with me!" Abu Zaid shouted during the hearing.
 
It is not clear what Abu Zaid meant by this outburst.
 
Shares in Mobinil are trading 0.07 per cent up at LE199.01 just before the Monday close of Egypt's stock exchange.
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