'False documents'

The couples, all Christians, were trying to adopt children from a Christian orphanage that allegedly provided them with false documents that certified the children were born to them.

A lawyer for the couples said they planned to appeal against the verdict.

The other seven defendants sentenced in the case on Thursday, were all Egyptians, including a nun connected to the orphanage, orphanage employees and a doctor who provided fake birth certificates.

Four of the seven remain at large and were sentenced in absentia. The Egyptians were sentences to either two or five years imprisonment and their fines were equal to those of the Americans.

Two US embassy officials attended the trial but declined to comment.

"The embassy has been following the case and is aware of the verdict," Margaret White, the US embassy spokeswoman, said.

Infants trafficking

Rights activists confirm trafficking in infants and young children takes place in the most populous Arab country, and infants in orphanages and babies of street girls are at the highest risk of being trafficked, often to infertile couples.

But there is also no practical legal mechanism for families - Christian or Muslim - to adopt children in Egypt, and Egyptians rarely gain guardianship of children not born to their families because of social, religious and legal strictures.

The current case came to light after Botros and her husband approached the US embassy in Cairo to arrange to take two of the babies out of Egypt, according to the indictment.

It said the couple agreed with an orphanage worker "to buy two newborn infants, a girl and a boy, in exchange for £26,000 [$4,675]," and received forged papers for the children.

The family's lawyer has said the couple wanted to adopt the children and did not knowingly break the law.

The second couple was accused of obtaining a forged birth certificate for a baby boy to take him to the United States, the indictment said. The couple tried in absentia was accused of forgery and paying 10,000 pounds for a baby girl.

All the children involved in the case have been returned to Egyptian orphanages.

Egyptian law allows fostering but it is generally not culturally acceptable for families to take in unrelated children.