(New York) - The military court's sentencing of the blogger Maikel Nabil to three years in prison is a serious setback to freedom of expression in post-Mubarak Egypt, Human Rights Watch said today. The ruling comes at a time when the Egyptian military is drawing very restrictive red lines around permissible speech.
"Maikel Nabil's three-year sentence may be the worst strike against free expression in Egypt since the Mubarak government jailed the first blogger for four years in 2007," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "The sentence is not only severe, but it was imposed by a military tribunal after an unfair trial."
Military officers arrested the 25-year-old activist on March 28, 2011, at his home in Cairo. 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. The military judge had announced on April 6 that he would rule on April 10 after defense lawyers had completed their pleadings. On April 10, Nabil's lawyers were informed that no session would take place on that day and that the judge would rule on April 12.
Adel Ramadan, of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of Nabil's defense lawyers, told Human Rights Watch that when the lawyers went to the court complex on the morning of April 11, they saw on the court roll that the court had already sentenced Nabil the day before. In violation of the Code of Military Justice, the lawyers had not been present.
The sentence will only be final once ratified by the chief of the military district. The military should drop all charges against Nabil and immediately release him, Human Rights Watch said.
Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power on February 11, the military has arrested at least 200 protesters and tried scores of them before military courts. Over 150 protesters arrested on March 9 after the military forcibly cleared Tahrir Square of protesters were sentenced to prison terms by military tribunals in Cairo's high-security Tora prison and are still being held.
Nabil's trial has serious implications for freedom of expression on the internet more generally, and in particular the ability to expose military abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
On April 11, Gen. Ismail Etman, head of the Morale Affairs Directorate of the SCAF, said on the live television program Akher Kalam that Nabil had used "inappropriate language" and defamed the military, and that his calls for an end to military conscription would have a negative effect on the youth of Egypt.
Over the past two months, victims of torture by the military and human rights activists who have exposed military abuses have found most Egyptian news media unwilling to cover these issues. Two news conferences by human rights lawyers in which torture victims testified - a subject that independent newspapers and satellite TV stations usually cover - received almost no coverage. Only a limited number of opinion writers in some newspapers and certain TV hosts have been willing to raise the issue of torture by the military.
On March 22, Gen. Etman sent a letter to editors of Egyptian newspapers telling them "not to publish any articles/news/press releases/complaints/advertising/pictures concerning the armed forces or the leadership of the armed forces, except after consulting the Morale Affairs directorate and the Military Intelligence since these are the competent parties to examine such issues to protect the safety of the nation." Human Rights Watch has seen a photocopy of this letter and confirmed its authenticity.
"State institutions, including the military, should never consider themselves above criticism," Stork said. "It is only through a public airing of abuses and full accountability measures that Egypt can hope to transition away from past human rights violations."