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Egyptian security officers have charged a journalist with spreading false news that could “harm the national interest” for working on a documentary about torture in Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the Egyptian government to drop the charges against the journalist.

On January 13, the officers detained Huwaida Taha Mitwalli, a journalist for London’s Al-Quds al-Arabi who is making a documentary about torture in Egypt for Al-Jazeera, and held her overnight for questioning. On Sunday afternoon, a state prosecutor charged Mitwalli with “practicing activities that harm the national interest of the country” and “possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country,” and ordered her freed on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,750).

“The government should prosecute officials responsible for torturing detainees in Egypt, not the journalists who report on them,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The charges against Huwaida Taha Mitwalli send a chilling message to anyone who dares to report on torture in Egypt.”

Security officers at Cairo airport prevented Mitwalli from leaving Egypt and confiscated her videotapes and computer as she tried to board a flight to Qatar on January 8. On January 12 she received a summons to appear at the Supreme State Security Court the following day. After she appeared at the court, Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency reported that security officials had arrested her for “seeking the help of some youths to film fabricated scenes as incidents of torture.” Husain `Abd al-Ghani, Al-Jazeera’s bureau chief in Cairo, told reporters the videotapes showed documentary reenactments of torture in Egyptian detention facilities. The arrest follows public outcry over a series of videotapes apparently depicting prisoner abuse in Egyptian detention facilities, including one tape showing a Cairo microbus driver being raped in police custody.

Egypt is a party to both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the regional African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, which outlaw torture, and a party to the UN Convention against Torture, which specially obligates states to take steps to prevent, investigate and prosecute torture.

“The Egyptian government seems willing to do anything to silence discussion of its torture scandal,” said Whitson. “This reaction makes a mockery of any claims by Egypt to be a government that respects human rights.”

The charges also underscore the need to reform Egypt’s laws governing the media, Human Rights Watch said. Amendments in July 2006 to the Press Law left intact article 102(bis) of the Penal Code, which 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.” Provisions that make “vilifying the king or president of a foreign country” and publishing material that “comprise[s] an attack against the dignity and honor of individuals, or an outrage of the reputation of families,” into offences also remain on the books.

Professionals associated with the book From the Papers of Shahenda Mekled, including Dr. Shirin Abu al-Naga, the editor, Shahenda Mekled, the author, and Muhammad Hashim, owner of the Merit publishing house, now face criminal defamation charges in connection with the work, a critical history of the Aziz al-Fiqi family, a prominent landowning family from the Nile Delta governorate of Munufiyya.

In another recent case, on June 26, 2006, a court near Cairo sentenced Ibrahim `Issa, editor of the popular opposition weekly Al-Dustur, and Sahar Zaki, a journalist for the paper, to one year in prison for “insulting the president” and “spreading false or tendentious rumors” in connection with an Al-Dustur article reporting a lawsuit against President Hosni Mubarak and senior officials in the ruling National Democratic Party. They are free, pending appeal.

“The best way to stop news stories about torture would be to eradicate torture,” Whitson said. “Again and again, the government uses illegitimate laws to silence criticism instead of fixing the problems identified by critics.”

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