Three freed Egyptian journalists still face criminal charges

New York, N.Y., December 6, 1999 — Three Egyptian journalists jailed for libel in August were freed late Sunday night after an Egyptian appeals court overturned their sentences. Magdy Hussein, editor in chief of the opposition biweekly Al-Sha’b, Saleh Bedeiwi, a reporter for Al-Sha’b, and Essam Eddine Hanafi, a cartoonist for the paper, were convicted on August 14 of libeling agriculture minister and deputy prime minister Youssef Wali. The three journalists were sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 20,000LE ($5,900) and damages of 501LE ($150). The court ruled that the three journalists had not been given a fair trial and ordered a retrial.

“CPJ welcomes the release of Hussein, Bedeiwi, and Hanafi, but remains concerned that they still face criminal charges,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann K. Cooper. “Journalists should never be jailed for material they publish. We hope Egyptian authorities will use this release as an opportunity to end criminal prosecutions of journalists in Egypt once and for all.”

On April 1, Wali filed a complaint against the journalists following several months of rancorous criticism of the minister in Al-Sha¹b for what they called his ministry’s “agricultural normalization” with Israel. Among the paper’s accusations were that the minister had imported tainted seeds and fertilizers from Israel that led to increased rates of cancer among the population. The paper also accused Wali of “treason” because of his efforts to promote agriculture cooperation with Israel.

Both Hussein and Bedeiwi were taken into custody shortly after the verdict was announced. Hanafi only turned himself in to authorities two weeks ago, according to sources at Al-Sha’b.

This is the second high-profile criminal case against Al-Sha’b journalists since last year. In February 1998, Hussein and Al-Sha’b reporter Muhammad Hilal were sentenced to one-year prison terms for allegedly libeling Alaa’ al-Alfi, the son of former interior minister Hassan al-Alfi. The libel charges stemmed from a series of articles and cartoons published in Al-Sha’b in 1996, alleging that Alaa’ al-Alfi had used his father’s government position to profit from business deals. On July 2, 1998, Egypt’s Court of Cassation overturned the convictions against the journalists and ordered their release. Both were freed from Torah Mazraa Prison on July 3 after serving four months of their sentence.

On May 3, 1999, CPJ named Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak one of the ten major Enemies of the Press after the jailing of four journalists for libel in 1998 — the first such cases ever documented by CPJ in Egypt. Dozens of other criminal cases against journalists are pending in court or under investigation.