(New York) - The Egyptian authorities should immediately drop the apparently politically motivated charges against two leading human rights defenders and a blogger, Human Rights Watch said today. The Khalifa court of misdemeanors will begin a criminal trial on May 22, 2010, of the human rights advocates Ahmad Saif al-Islam and Gamal Eid and blogger Amr Gharbeia on charges of defamation, blackmail, and misuse of the internet.
"These men have for years stood with victims of human rights violations and demanded that security officials be held accountable," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "By prosecuting them on bogus charges, the Egyptian government is harming not only these three men but also all the people they help."
On February 11, 2007, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), run by Eid, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre (HMLC), founded by Saif, published a statement alleging that Judge Abdelfattah Murad had plagiarized entire sections of an ANHRI report and reproduced them, without citing the source, in a book he had written. Gharbeia posted the statement on his blog, which viewers commented on.
Three days later, on February 14, Murad filed a complaint against Eid and Saif with the general prosecutor's office, accusing the two men of blackmailing the judge by threatening to denounce him for plagiarism if he did not pay them money.
The general prosecutor investigated this complaint and requested a report from Egypt's Internet Police, which confirmed that the statement had been published on the websites of the two human rights groups and on Gharbeia's blog. On May 30, 2007, the prosecutor interrogated Gharbeia on accusations of defamation in relation to the comments posted on his blog, which purportedly included defamatory statements about Murad.
Gharbeia told Human Rights Watch that he had at the time already deleted comments from his blog that he felt were inappropriate. On November 11, 2007, the prosecutor interrogated Eid, who confirmed that his organization had issued the statement accusing Murad of plagiarism.
There was no further action until April 2010, when the General Prosecutor‘s Office indicted Saif, Eid, and Gharbeia on defamation charges under articles 303, 306, 307 of the penal code, blackmail under article 327 of the penal code, which carries a penalty of up to six months imprisonment, and "abuse of the internet" under article 76 of the 2003 Communications Law, which carries with it a prison sentence and a fine of up to 20,000 Egyptian Pounds (US$3,541).
The Khalifa prosecutor's office scheduled the first session of the trial for May 22. Both Eid and Gharbeia told Human Rights Watch that the only evidence the prosecutor interrogated them about was the ANHRI statement that alleges that Murad committed plagiarism. It states that portions of the ANHRI report, "Implacable Adversaries: Arab Governments and the Internet," were reproduced in Murad's book, "The Scientific and Legal Principles of Blogs." On April 7, 2007, Eid filed a complaint against Murad under the Egyptian Intellectual Property Protection Act no. 82/2002, but the complaint has yet to be investigated by the prosecutor.
Criminal defamation laws are increasingly viewed as inconsistent with the right to freedom of expression. As the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression noted in 2008, "The subjective character of many defamation laws, their overly broad scope and their application within criminal law have turned them into a powerful mechanism to stifle investigative journalism and silence criticism."
"The prosecutor should never have sent this defamation case to court," Stork said. "In a country where so many human rights abuses are not properly investigated, the government should put an end to the abuse of the justice system to silence critics."
Human Rights Watch expressed concern that this trial is just the latest in a series of attempts by Murad to silence human rights organizations. In December 2007, an administrative court dismissed another case brought by Murad calling for 49 websites of well-known human rights organizations and activists to be blocked because they published information that "tarnished Egypt's reputation." In 2007, a court dismissed another defamation case that Murad had brought against Eid and two bloggers, Manal Hassan and Alaa Saif, because they had accused him of plagiarism, and the decision was confirmed on appeal.
This case coincides with other incidents of government intolerance of peaceful dissent. On April 6, security officials broke up a peaceful protest and arrested over 100 demonstrators. On May 11, the government renewed the longstanding emergency law, which allows for repression of demonstrations and detention without charge or trial, despite the government's promises since 2005 that it would allow the law to expire. And on March 7, the Egyptian daily Al Dustoor published a leaked new draft law on associations that, if adopted, would impose new restrictions on independent organizations and effectively prevent many of the most critical organizations from operating.
"All eyes are on Egypt as it enters a critical election period," Stork said. "The government's performance so far this year bodes ill for human rights in the year ahead."