Mursi to urge Obama to free blind sheikh in first U.S. state visit


The release of an Egyptian blind sheikh, jailed in the United States for the 1993 World Trade Center attack, will be urged by Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi during his upcoming visit to the U.S., the leader said on Monday.

The announcement follows his pledge, during his presidential campaign earlier this year, to free Omar Abdul Rahman. The preacher is currently serving a life sentence and the planned request for his release appears to be gesture, by Mursi, to Gama’a al-Islamiya, a Salafi group.

Sheikh Rahman is the spiritual leader of Gama’a al-Islamiya, which was involved in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat but renounced violence in 1997. The group has entered mainstream politics since former President Hosni Mubarak was toppled.

In September, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland stressed there was no plan to release him following his trial and conviction.

Mursi told CNN in an interview aired Monday that he was hoping to travel to the United States before the end of March 2013, and he planned to raise the case of Sheikh Rahman with U.S. President Barack Obama.

"There is no set date yet, but it will most likely be before the end of the first quarter of this year," Mursi said.

It will be the Islamist leader's first visit to the United States since he was elected last year after the overthrow of long-time Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Relations between the United States and its key regional ally, Egypt, have been complicated since Mursi's election with Washington treading carefully amid a series of controversial and widely criticized moves by Mursi.

Mursi repeated his view of the blind sheikh saying: "I want him to be free." But he added: "I respect the law. And the rule of law in Egypt and the United States."

If the ailing and ageing Abdul Rahman cannot be freed, then Mursi suggested he should be allowed visitation rights with his family and children.

"Is there a chance for him to be freed? I wish this," Mursi said, but if not then "Egypt's relationship with America deserves that these issues be reviewed, if that is okay according to the law."

"If it isn't possible, and I hope that it is possible, if it wasn't possible, then these humane aspects need to be taken into account, for him to be in a humane prison, to be able to have visitors, to be able to have company."

Mursi said he also wanted to discuss other issues with Obama, such as cooperation in scientific research, manufacturing and production, and tourism.