CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's top prosecutor on Wednesday referred toppled Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to trial on charges he conspired with the Palestinian group Hamas, Lebanon's Hezbollah and others to carry out a campaign of terrorist violence to destabilize the country following his ouster.
The charges, which carry a potential death penalty, are the most sweeping and heaviest accusations yet in a series of trials against the Brotherhood. The new trial of Morsi, the three top Brotherhood leaders and 32 other defendants appeared aimed at decisively crippling the top echelons of the group that dominated Egypt's politics during Morsi's one-year presidency.
Since the military ousted Morsi on July 3 following massive protests against him, security forces have unleashed a heavy crackdown on the Brotherhood that killed hundreds of pro-Morsi protesters and arrested thousands, while the group has persisted in daily protests against the new government.
Previous, ongoing trials of Morsi and other Brotherhood leaders have focused on accusations the group is implicated in violence.
But the new charges take that claim to a new level, aiming to link the group to a nascent Islamic militant insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula that accelerated after Morsi's fall — and making the wider claim that the Brotherhood was enmeshed with terrorists since 2005 in deals aimed attaining and holding onto power.
"The biggest case of conspiracy in Egypt's history goes to the criminal court," proclaimed the title of the prosecution announcement.
Mohammed el-Damati, a defense lawyer for the Brotherhood, denounced the new trial — and those already started — as "political," aiming to give a legal veneer to the crackdown.
In the statement, the prosecutor said that after Morsi's ouster, "the Brotherhood and those terrorist groups carried out explosions and attacks against the military forces and police in Sinai to terrorize Egyptians and create chaos." It said the aim was to incite civil war, restore Morsi to office and "reclaim the Brotherhood's grip" on power.
Prosecutors claim that, while president, Morsi along with his aides revealed state secrets to the militant groups and to Iran's Revolutionary Guard. Morsi and 35 others, including the Muslim Brotherhood's top three leaders, are also accused of sponsoring terrorism and carrying out combat training and other acts to undermine Egypt's stability.
The statement did not announce a date for the trial's start. The official main charge is "takhabur" to commit terrorism, an Arabic term meaning to be in communication with and reveal state secrets to foreign powers as part of a conspiracy.
Morsi is already on trial on charges of inciting the murder of protesters against him while in office. The military ousted Morsi on July 3 after days of mass protests demanding he step down. Morsi spent months in a secret military detention before he appeared in court to face the incitement charges in November. That trial resumes in January.
Among Morsi's co-defendants in the new trial are top Brotherhood leader Mohammed Badie and deputy Khairat el-Shater, both also facing other trials. A second deputy, Mahmoud Ezzat, is also charged, but remains on the run. Also charged was Saad el-Katatni, head of the Brotherhood's political party.
Hamas, which rules the Palestinian Gaza Strip territory bordering Egypt's Sinai, called the allegations "dangerous" and said it was being targeted.
"Hamas has never been involved in Egypt's internal affairs and all evidence has shown that we had nothing to do with Egypt's internal affairs," it said in a statement. "We work to protect Egypt's borders and its national security, which is our national security."
The new charges Wednesday come as Egypt continues to deal with the aftermath of Morsi's ouster. His supporters have maintained protests since his removal from office, demanding his reinstatement. The rallies have dwindled in strength however under a continued crackdown since last summer, with thousands arrested and hundreds killed in the violent breakup of protests.
El-Damati predicted that the trial won't take place until after the referendum on the amended constitution, to be held on Jan. 14-15, because authorities want to ensure calm, he said.
The constitution is a significantly amended version of one that was drafted by a predominantly Islamist panel last year and passed in a referendum under Morsi. The adoption of the new charter is the first step in a political road map announced by Egypt's military chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, when he removed Morsi.
The Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, on Wednesday called for a boycott of the upcoming the referendum. Other allies of Morsi, including youth groups holding near daily protests since his ouster, have said they will demonstrate on referendum days.
"The military coup has intentionally worked on tarnishing the legitimate constitution which won the approval of two thirds of the people, producing a deformed one," the party said on its website.
Government officials had warned of attempts to create chaos on the day of the referendum, and state media reported that as many as 200,000 members of the security forces will be assigned to protect polling stations nationwide.
The prosecutors' statement Wednesday said their new investigation showed that the Brotherhood's international branch has carried out violent acts in Egypt to create chaos. Prosecutors allege the Brotherhood prepared a terrorist plot that involved smuggling weapons into the country and smuggling their own members into the Gaza Strip to receive military training from Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guard to carry out operations in Sinai.
Prosecutors said their investigation also showed the Brotherhood received funds from foreign countries. Investigators claim the plan began as early as 2005 and was activated in 2011 during the turmoil that accompanied the uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi's senior presidential aides, also members of the Brotherhood, revealed state secrets by emails to group members abroad, as well as to Hamas, Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah, prosecutors claim. The prosecutors said Morsi was aware of the leaks.
The new charges are also linked to accusations that Morsi and the Brotherhood worked with the Palestinian militant group Hamas on a prison break that freed him and other members of the group during Egypt's 2011 uprising. The prison break left 14 inmates dead.
At least 17 of the 35 people charged Wednesday with Morsi are on the run, prosecutors said.
Maggie Michael in Cairo and Ibrahim Barzak in Gaza contributed to this report