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(New York) - Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should drop all charges against a blogger for his internet posts critical of the military, Human Rights Watch said today.

On April 6, 2011, a military tribunal is expected to deliver the verdict in the case against Maikel Nabil, who faces up to three years in prison on charges of "insulting the military."

"It's pretty stunning in Egypt's supposed new era of rights to see the military government prosecuting someone in a military court for writing about the military," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "This trial sets a dangerous precedent at a time when Egypt is trying to transition away from the abuses of the Mubarak era."

Nabil, a 25-year-old activist who blogs at "Son of Ra,'" has campaigned for an end to forced conscription and most recently criticized the army in a series of blog posts, including one entitled, "The Army and the People [Were Never] One Hand." His criticism of the military has become the subject of the case against him, in addition to comments published on his personal Facebook page.

On March 28 at 5 p.m., five military officers went to Nabil's home in the Ein Shams district of Cairo and arrested him with a warrant from the military prosecutor. His brother, Mark Nabil, told Human Rights Watch that Maikel called his family the next day, told them that he had spent the night at Military Intelligence offices, and asked them to send a lawyer for his interrogation the following day.

The military prosecutor charged him with "insulting the military establishment," under article 184 of the penal code, and with "spreading false information," a violation of article 102 bis. These provisions carry sentences that include a fine of up to 5000 EGP (US$840) and imprisonment in prison.

In a military court session on April 4, a military intelligence officer presented the evidence against Nabil, which one of his defense lawyers, Maged Hanna, told Human Rights Watch consisted of a CD with details of Nabil's blog postings and commentary on Facebook over recent months.

Another defense lawyer, Ali Atef, told Human Rights Watch that the prosecutor's indictment lists a series of comments on Nabil's Facebook page in which he criticized Defense Minister Mohamed Husein Tantawi and the army for their abuses against protesters, blamed the army for Egypt's security problems, and criticized the army for conducting forced virginity tests on female detainees. The blog posts referred to by the prosecutor included posts in which Nabil called for an end to forced military conscription and was critical of the treatment he experienced during his time in the army as a conscript.

The right to freedom of expression, including writing that criticizes the military, is protected under international human rights agreements to which Egypt is a party, Human Rights Watch said. The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights in article 9 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in article 19 obligate Egypt to protect free expression. Under international law, restrictions on freedom of expression must be strictly limited to meet a legitimate aim.

This is the third time a blogger has been brought before a military court in Egypt. In February 2009, the military arrested Ahmad Mostafa, a student and member of the April 6 protest movement, for his blog post "Scandal in the Military Academy," in which he alleged corruption in the military academy. The military charged him with "the publication of information considered a secret of the armed forces, spreading false information with the goal of causing harm and insulting officials." The court ultimately acquitted him. In November 2010, a military court sentenced another blogger, Ahmad Bassiouni, to six months in prison for having "broadcast military secrets via the internet."

Human Rights Watch strongly opposes any trials of civilians before military courts, the proceedings of which do not protect due process rights. The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, in interpreting the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, has said that military courts "should not, in any circumstances whatsoever, have jurisdiction over civilians."

The military has brought hundreds of civilians before military trials since it formally took over the government from Hosni Mubarak on February 13. Those arrested and tried before military courts include a number of peaceful protesters whom the military beat and tortured on March 9 and other occasions. Over 150 protesters remain imprisoned in Tora and Wadi Gedid prisons after being convicted by military tribunals. 

"The Supreme Military Council, in its caretaker role, is supposed to protect and uphold the rights of Egyptians to express themselves, however critical their views may be," Whitson said. "The Egyptian army should understand that it is no more immune from criticism than former President Mubarak."

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