ISMAILIA, Egypt, Sept 13 (Reuters) - An Egyptian court sentenced seven Bedouins for life imprisonment on Monday, in a case some tribesmen said would refuel long-running tension in the Sinai Peninsula.
Bedouins, among nomadic Arab tribes in the Sinai, often complain of neglect by the Cairo government and say tough living conditions have led some of their people to resort to smuggling and other activities considered criminal by the state.
The court sentenced Salem Ali Salem, who has been wanted for attacking police officers and disrupting the flow of trade between Egypt and Israel, along with six others, Judge Bahaa Al-Din Mohamed Al-Marri said in the ruling.
The court said the seven opened fire on police at a voting station in May during the mid-term elections for the upper house, or Shura Council, carrying out ballot boxes in a bid to call off the elections. It did not clarify why they had done so.
Rights groups said the vote, like past elections in Egypt, was marred by abuses. The government says voting is fair.
Bedouin leaders denied the charges and said that the court ruling would disrupt the region's 50-day calm.
"These charges are fabricated and are politically motivated," said Moussa el-Delhi, a spokesman for the Central Sinai group, adding that they targeted members of one tribe.
Police detained thousands of Bedouins after a series of bombings at tourist resorts in south Sinai in 2004-2006. Relations have since been strained, with sporadic clashes with security forces.
Tribesmen angry at heavy-handed security tactics set tyres ablaze near a pipeline supplying natural gas to Syria and Jordan in June, a month later tribesmen hijacked a bus from an industrial area in central Sinai. [ID:nLDE66Q19H]
But analysts say the government has now changed tack, freeing some detained Bedouin and promising economic openings to leaders to secure their allegiance as they hunt tribesmen involved in smuggling and migrant-trafficking. [ID:nLDE66901H]
Egypt's interior minister freed some 210 Bedouins since July as the government looked to explore ways of bringing calm. (Reporting by Yusri Mohamed; Writing by Sarah Mikhail and Dina Zayed)
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