The Egyptian government today for the first time sentenced a blogger to prison for his writings, threatening a window of free speech that has emerged on the Internet, Human Rights Watch said today.

A court in Alexandria this morning convicted and sentenced `Abd al-Karim Nabil Sulaiman, to four years in prison on charges of insulting Islam, defaming the president, and “spreading information disruptive of the public order.” According to reporters who attended the hearing, Judge Ayman al-Akazi issued the verdict in a brief five minute session.

Sulaiman, a 22-year-old former student of Islamic jurisprudence at Al-Azhar University, is better known by his pen name, Karim Amer. Following a complaint filed by the university, Sulaiman appeared before a public prosecutor on November 7 to answer charges related to items he wrote on his blog criticizing Islam, the authorities at Al-Azhar and President Hosni Mubarak. Prosecutors ordered him detained pending investigation and renewed his detention four times before his trial opened at Muharram Bek Court in Alexandria on January 25.

Plainclothes officers had previously arrested Sulaiman at his home on October 26, 2005, four days after he criticized Muslim rioters and Islam in a blog post about sectarian clashes in his neighborhood. Authorities held him for 12 days after this first arrest and released him without charge.

“This sentence sets a chilling precedent in a country where blogs have opened a window for free speech,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Egyptian government should abide by its commitments to uphold free expression and release Sulaiman without delay.”

The charges against Sulaiman stem from laws that contradict guarantees of free expression under international law. Article 102(bis) of the Penal Code 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.” Article 176 of the Penal Code, the apparent basis of the “insulting Islam” charge against Sulaiman, allows for the imprisonment of “whoever instigates…discrimination against one of the people’s sects because of race, origin, language, or belief, if such instigation is liable to disturb public order.” Article 179 allows for the detention of “whoever affronts the President of the Republic.”

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Egypt ratified without reservations in 1982, guarantees the right to freedom of expression, including the “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media.”

Article 19(3) of the ICCPR allows restriction of expression only in limited circumstances, namely in the interest of “respect of the rights or reputations of others” or “the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.” Such restrictions must be “necessary.” These exceptions are narrowly framed, and the burden of demonstrating their validity rests with the state, which must justify any content ban by showing that restrictions are necessary to achieve a specific and legitimate purpose within one of the enumerated exceptions.