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In a move that surprised rights activists, prominent independent journalist Ibrahim Issa was sentenced to jail for two months in a criminal defamation case. In a joint action led by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), 37 members of the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) condemned the ongoing violations of freedom of expression in Egypt, as illustrated by numerous criminal defamation cases before the courts.

On 28 September, the conviction of Issa, editor-in-chief of the daily "Al-Dustour", was upheld by an appeals court in Cairo, according to EOHR and numerous other groups protesting the prison sentence. He was originally sentenced to six months in jail in March for "publishing false information and rumours" about President Hosni Mubarak's health in articles written in August 2007.

Lawyers and rights activists expected the conviction would be upheld but that the jail sentence would not be implemented. Egyptian rights groups instantly responded by issuing alerts and joint letters, including a statement signed by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), EOHR and the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), among 17 Egyptian groups.

Issa's lawyers told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) they would take what they called a "politically motivated verdict" to the cassation court, the country's highest jurisdiction.

CPJ noted that there was a strong police presence both inside and outside the courtroom, yet it did not stop journalists and human rights activists, "who chanted anti-Mubarak slogans inside the courthouse." Previous court appearances by Issa have prompted similar scenes.

Ameira Howeidy, a correspondent for "Al Ahram" newspaper, told Index on Censorship, "The authorities want to punish Ibrahim Issa, but by doing so Egypt will look bad if he serves the two-month prison sentence. For his part, Issa is more than willing to embarrass the authorities and expose claims that the regime tolerates free speech by going to prison. Today he is Egypt's most controversial journalist and all eyes are on him. What will it look like for the Mubarak regime when hundreds of local and international journalists and cameramen are there when he turns himself in?"

Meanwhile, according to the joint statement, a criminal defamation case will be heard against Adel Hammouda, editor-in-chief of "Al Fagr" weekly newspaper, and journalist Mohamed El Baz on 11 October. Last year, the Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Egypt, accused them of "defamation and insult" after "Al Fagr" published an article entitled "The Grand Sheikh of the Vatican". The case filed by the Sheikh is based on article 184 of the penal code, which sets penalties for "insulting the People's Assembly or the Shura Council or other statutory bodies, the army or the courts or authorities or public interests."

In yet another case, Hammouda and Issa are among four editors-in-chief of independent newspapers who are facing a one-year jail sentence. In September 2007, Hammouda and Issa, along with editors Wael al-Abrashi and Abdel Halim Kandeel, were found guilty of "publishing false information likely to disturb public order." The next court session is scheduled to take place on 4 October.

EOHR expresses dismay at the "rising wave of persecuting Egyptian journalists, as there are now in Egypt 47 cases against journalists."

Visit these links:
- IFEX/EOHR joint action:
- Index on Issa:
- CIHRS joint statement:
- CPJ:
- Reporters Without Borders:
(Photo of Ibrahim Issa courtesy of Index on Censorship)

(30 September 2008)

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