Egypt continues to imprison journalists and editors who publish stories critical of President Hosni Mubarak and other high officials, Human Rights Watch said today. The organization called on the government to repeal laws that allow authorities to imprison writers and editors solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression.

On September 13, a Cairo misdemeanor court sentenced four editors of independent and opposition newspapers to a maximum one year in prison and a LE 20,000 (Egyptian pounds, about US $3,500) fine for violating Article 188 of the penal code, which punishes any person who “makes public – with malicious intent – false news, statements or rumors that [are] likely to disturb public order.”

The four are `Adil Hamouda, editor of the weekly Al-Fagr, Wael al-Ibrashi, of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, `Abd al-Halim Qandil, former editor of the weekly Al-Karama, and Ibrahim `Issa, editor of the daily Al-Dustur. The court also ordered the four to pay an additional LE 10,000 (US $1,750) to remain free while they appeal the convictions and sentences.

On September 11, in a separate case, the state security prosecutor-general charged `Issa with publishing reports “likely to disturb public security and damage the public interest” following articles in Al-Dustur about President Mubarak’s rumored health problems. `Issa was ordered to appear before the State Security Court on October 1.

“Press freedom does not exist in a country where the state can put you in prison simply for criticizing the president,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “This ruling and the new charges against `Issa are incompatible with Egypt’s Constitution and its commitments under international human rights law, not to mention Egypt’s current membership on the UN Human Rights Council.”

Thursday’s court ruling came in response to a case filed in November 2006 by lawyers Ibrahim `Abd al-Rasul and Hossam Mahfuz, who cited their National Democratic Party (NDP) membership as grounds for filing the complaint accusing the four editors of defaming the president and senior officials of the NDP. The court dismissed the defamation charges, but upheld those relating to Article 188 of the penal code.

These developments follow earlier blows against freedom of expression. On May 2, 2007, a Cairo criminal court sentenced Al-Jazeera journalist Huwaida Taha Mitwalli to six months in prison for a documentary she made about torture in Egypt. On March 12, 2007, the Alexandria Court of Appeals upheld a four-year prison sentence against `Abd al-Karim Nabil Sulaiman, a blogger who had criticized Islam and President Mubarak. Two days earlier, on March 10, secular activist and blogger Muhammad al-Sharqawi – himself a victim of police torture – returned home to find that his laptop, which he said contained an unreleased video depicting police abuse, had been stolen while cash and other valuables in the apartment were untouched.

On October 31, 2006, a Cairo military court sentenced Tal`at al-Sadat, a former member of parliament elected as an independent but affiliated with the suspended opposition al-Ahrar party, to one year in prison for “insulting the military and the republican guard.”

On June 26, 2006, a court near Cairo sentenced Ibrahim `Issa and Sahar Zaki, a journalist for Al-Dustur, to one year in prison for “insulting the president” and “spreading false or tendentious rumors.” The two appealed the sentence, and on February 27, 2007, a Cairo appeals court reduced the sentence to a US $3,950 fine.