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Egypt cracks down on critics

Court turns down presidential runner-up's forgery appeal

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Members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Parliament deputies flash victory signs to riot police in Cairo.

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CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- State security forces have again attacked demonstrators in central Cairo, arresting dozens of people who had turned out to show support for two judges.

The government's show of force Thursday -- the second in consecutive weeks -- came as a disciplinary court reprimanded Hesham El-Bastawisi, but cleared Mahmoud Mekki.

The two judges, who contend that parliamentary elections last fall were rigged, were accused of speaking ill of the government.

Plainclothes police wielding black rubber truncheons beat some of the demonstrators. Protesters and passers-by alike were caught up in the dragnet.

As a blue truck drove away from the demonstration site, detainees held inside banged on the sides of the truck and chanted slogans against President Hosni Mubarak.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the main opposition group in Parliament, with 20 percent of the seats, said hundreds of its supporters were arrested, including senior Brotherhood member Issam Al-Aryan.

Thousands of riot police blocked most of the roads leading to the High Court, where the demonstrators had sought to assemble.

On the roof of the adjacent Lawyers' Syndicate, dozens of supporters of the judges chanted slogans including "Down with Mubarak" and held signs expressing support for the judges.

In a market area adjacent to the court, plainclothes policemen hauled about 15 people inside the foyer of a cheap hotel. A reporter who saw them with their hands over their heads, surrounded by more police, was removed from the hotel.

The response to Thursday's demonstrations appeared less violent than to the one last week, when a number of journalists were beaten. One officer told CNN that police had been ordered not to harass journalists.

As the disciplinary hearing for Mekki and El-Bastawisi was under way, about 50 judges assembled in the library of the Court of Appeal to show solidarity with the judges.

El-Bastawisi was in a hospital after having undergone heart surgery this week. Mekki refused to attend the hearing. Before the verdict, he told CNN that -- even if cleared -- he would not rest until the hundreds of people arrested for expressing their support for the judges are released.

Nour appeal

In a separate incident, a court turned down the appeal of Ayman Nour, who was runner-up in last year's presidential election, having won 7 percent of the vote.

Nour, a lawyer and a former member of Parliament, was convicted of forging signatures on petitions he submitted to get his al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party licensed. Critics contend the charges were trumped up, as his party submitted 2,000 signatures when only 50 were required.

The decision means that Nour will have to complete a five-year prison sentence.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States "is deeply troubled" by Nour's detention and the crackdown on demonstrators.

"The Egyptian government's handling of this case represents both a miscarriage of justice by international standards and a setback for the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people," he told reporters.

"We are deeply concerned by the repeated instances of police violence against peaceful demonstrators in Cairo and other places," he said.

But, he added, "let's not lose sight of the fact that Egypt is a friend, is an ally. And, overall, the United States has derived great benefit from its relationship with Egypt and the Egyptian people."

He said Egyptian politics has shifted "for the positive."

Although the Egyptian government -- led by Mubarak since 1981 -- can be pushed to make democratic changes, "fundamentally, these are decisions that the Egyptian people are going to have to make for themselves," he said.

Last year, the United States gave Egypt $1.3 billion in military assistance and $495 million in economic assistance.

Nour's wife, Gameela Ismail, said she was unimpressed with the State Department's comments.

"It sounds quite tough," she told CNN in a telephone interview from Cairo. "However, we have been reading all sorts of statements over the last couple of years. ... We don't see any action; we only hear noise."

She added, "Everybody thinks that this would never have happened without the endorsement of the United States."

She noted that the Egyptian president's son, Gamal Mubarak, is in Washington meeting with U.S. officials.

Beyond its occasional statements, the United States appears to be exerting no pressure on Egypt to become more democratic, she said.

"The regime knows quite well now that the United States needs the regime for other priorities," she said, such as support for its efforts in Iraq and Iran, and on the Palestinian issue.

Still, she said, she was shocked when she heard the ruling, which she described as "against all logic and against all legal rules."

CNN's Ben Wedeman, Kevin Flower and Husam Ahmed contributed to this report.

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