Cairo court sentences Al-Jazeera producer to six months in jail

New York, May 2, 2007—On the same day the Committee to Protect Journalists cited Egypt for its deteriorating press conditions, a judge in Cairo convicted an Al-Jazeera producer on charges of “harming Egypt’s national interest” and “falsely depicting events” for her work on a documentary exposing police abuse. The court sentenced Howayda Taha Matwali, who also works as a reporter for the London-based daily Al-Quds al-Arabi, to six months in prison and fined her 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,516).

Matwali, who resides in Qatar, where Al-Jazeera is based, was sentenced in absentia. Her lawyer, Gamal Eid, told CPJ he will appeal the verdict once the judge submits a written ruling. Eid called the trial a sham, saying the judge prevented the defense from presenting its case. “We were denied our requests; not a single request was approved,” Eid told CPJ, referring to rulings that prevented the defense from calling witnesses and introducing evidence.

The verdict comes on the same day that CPJ named Egypt a press freedom “Backslider”—one of the 10 countries worldwide where press conditions have gravely deteriorated.

“We’re outraged by the prison sentence handed down to Howayda Taha Matwali by a Cairo criminal court,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “Her trial was a mockery, and the charges were patently absurd. We hope this verdict is quashed upon appeal.”

On January 13, a state security prosecutor charged Matwali after authorities found unedited footage showing re-enactments of reported incidents of torture in Egyptian police stations. Matwali, an Egyptian, planned to use the re-enactments in a documentary she was preparing for the satellite channel, according to Al-Jazeera.

In addition to the sentence, Matwali must forfeit 10,000 Egyptian pounds she posted as bail.

In recent months, authorities have carried out wide-scale arrests of government opponents and critics, arresting and prosecuting members of the news media along the way. On April 15, Egyptian authorities arrested blogger Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, 27, and ordered him detained for 15 days pending an investigation into charges that he belongs to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and that he defamed the government with his reporting. Mahmoud used his blog to expose torture of civilians by Egyptian authorities and the country’s practice of trying civilians in military courts.

Mahmoud’s lawyer Islam Lutfi told CPJ on Tuesday that authorities had extended his client’s temporary detention for another 15 days. “His detention is a political decision,” Lutfi said. “Egyptian authorities use temporary detention as a form of punishment.” He added that authorities could continually extend Mamoud’s detention by 15-day increments, potentially keeping him in custody for months.

In February, Egyptian blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman, who goes by the online name Karim Amer, was convicted by a criminal court of insulting Islam and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. He was sentenced to four years in prison, according to international news reports.