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A local court verdict sentencing an editor and a journalist at an opposition newspaper to one year in prison for “insulting the president” is a serious setback for press freedom in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today.

On June 26, a court in the village of Al-Warrak, near Cairo, sentenced Ibrahim Issa, editor of the opposition weekly Al-Dustur, and Sahar Zaki, a journalist at the paper, to one year in prison for “insulting the president” and “spreading false or tendentious rumors,” after they reported on an anti-government lawsuit.

“Jailing Ibrahim Issa is an obvious attempt to punish a persistent government critic and to stop others from speaking out,” said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

The court ruled on a complaint brought by the “ordinary people of al-Warrak” who were purportedly offended by an April 2005 Al-Dustur article reporting on a lawsuit brought in the same village. The suit accused President Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal Mubarak, as well as the first lady, Suzanne Mubarak, and high officials, of unconstitutional conduct and “wasting foreign aid” in connection with economic privatization efforts. The court also sentenced Said Muhammad Abdullah Sulaiman, the man who brought the suit, to one year in prison.

All three are free on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,734), pending appeal.

Al-Dustur is one of the few Egyptian papers that consistently feature outspoken criticism of the government. The ruling came just days after Issa said on a pan-Arab television talk show that corruption retarded development in Egypt and the Arab world.

Article 179 of Egypt’s Penal Code criminalizes “insulting the president.” Article 102(bis) allows for the detention of “whoever deliberately diffuses news, information/data, or false or tendentious rumors, or propagates exciting publicity, if this is liable to disturb public security, spread horror among the people, or cause harm or damage to the public interest.”

It is well established under international human rights law that politicians and other public figures are subject to, and must tolerate, wider and more intense scrutiny of their conduct. According to the Siracusa Principles on the Limitation and Derogation Provisions in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, restrictions on freedom of expression “shall not be used to protect the state and its officials from public opinion or criticism.”

In 2004, President Mubarak pledged to amend laws that allow the authorities to imprison journalists for what they write, but the government has since made no effort to pass the needed legislation.

Issa, who also edits the daily Sawt Al-Umma, has run afoul of the government in the past. During his tenure as editor of Al-Dustur between 1995 and 1998, the Ministry of Information frequently delayed the paper’s publication. In February 1998, the authorities banned the paper after it published a letter purportedly from the armed Islamist group the Gama`a Islamiyya. Issa unsuccessfully tried to register a new newspaper nine times over the next seven years.

The government banned one of his novels, Maqtal Al-Rajul Al-Kabir (The Assassination of the Big Man), in 1999. In 2005, when Ayman Nour’s opposition Al-Ghad party was courting Issa to edit its house organ, the government lifted the ban on Al-Dustur, and Issa returned as the paper’s editor in chief.

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