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CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ The trial of a wealthy, conservative Muslim businessman accused of having more than four wives at once began Sunday amid a declaration of eternal love from an ex-wife and assertions from various in-laws that he was the man of every woman's dreams.

AP Photo CAI111

The case of Ragab el-Suweirky's marriages _ he doesn't remember if he's had 17 or 20 wives _ has riveted Egypt with its tales of wedding-night divorces and brief unions in a country where anything to do with sex is whispered.

Prosecutors say el-Suweirky, 56, distorted the truth about his marital status to live a life of sin. Defense lawyers claim the case against him is an attempt to destroy a business empire owned by a devout believer.

Scores of el-Suweirky's supporters mobbed him Sunday as he was escorted by police to the caged dock in a Cairo criminal court. Chanting ``Don't worry, we're with you!'' they tried to shield el-Suweirky from photographers jostling to take his picture.

El-Suweirky, who has been in detention since May 6, wore white prison robes and sported a long gray beard. The paunchy businessman smiled and raised a hand in greeting or a clenched fist in defiance.

``They wanted to find something against me, but they didn't so they started investigating my legitimate affairs,'' el-Suweirky told The Associated Press, speaking from behind the cage. ``Everything I did was sanctioned by Islam, everything.''

Beginning the trial, Prosecutor Muhammad Abdullah read out the charges against el-Suweirky: withholding information about his marital status, tricking a woman into having illicit sex _ a complaint that's tantamount to rape _ and on three occasions having one wife more than the four wives sanctioned by Islamic law.

Abdullah also accused el-Suweirky of falsifying marriage documents to show he was married to fewer than four women.

``Thus he lived as a husband with these women and they thought they were surrendering themselves to a legitimate husband,'' Abdullah said.

Upon hearing those words, el-Suweirky yelled: ``No, by God, it never happened. I am innocent. All my marriages were legal.''

El-Suweirky's defense team asked Judge Lutfi Suleiman to release el-Suweirky, but the judge turned down the request.

Defense lawyer Yusri Saro told the AP the real reason for the prosecution was to close down the 48 branches of el-Suweirky's popular clothing stores.

``There are secular and leftist waves in Egypt that are fighting the Islamic trends and don't like the idea of a conservative Muslim being successful,'' he said.

Saro denied press reports that el-Suweirky belongs to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood spokesman Mamoum Hodeiby said the group ``hasn't seen his face. With all these marriages and businesses, he's got no time for us.''

Another defense lawyer, Ahmed Mohammed Hafez, said: ``God created all of us with a passion for something. His passion is women and the legal outlet for such a passion is marriage. Let them look for those who do it outside marriage.''

El-Suweirky's ex-wife Fatma Mohammed Ibrahim, 19, attended the trial to lend her support and to praise him to anyone who would listen.

With only her brown, kohl-rimmed eyes visible from her Islamic black covering, Ibrahim, who married el-Suweirky for less than a month last year, told her husband: ``I'll always love you. You taught me to pray.''

Other in-laws and former in-laws also had kind words for the defendant.

Ala Suleiman, whose daughter was married to el-Suweirky for a month, described him as ``a generous man who kept sending my daughter money until she remarried.''

Still, Suleiman's daughter and Ibrahim couldn't put up with the strict Islamic life he wanted them to lead.

``He's an ideal husband, a woman's dream,'' said Eidah Salam Hassan, whose 18-year-old daughter is married to the businessman.

The trial has been adjourned until Aug. 18.