Egyptian court imposes sentence in 1996 libel case

New York, July 13, 2010The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns an Egyptian court’s decision to sentence a jailed opposition leader to a year in prison for defaming a former minister more than 14 years ago.

A Cairo appeals court last month sentenced Magdy Hussein, who served as editor of the long-banned opposition newspaper Al-Shaab, to a one-year jail term in a defamation case filed in 1996 by the family of then-Interior Minister Hassan El Alfy, according to Egyptian news accounts and human rights groups.

Hussein, who also heads the banned Labor Party, a group with Islamist leanings, is already serving a two-year prison sentence in connection with his political activism. In February 2009, an Egyptian military court convicted Hussein of illegally crossing into Gaza in the wake of Israeli airstrikes. Hussein is also one of President Hosni Mubarak’s top critics.

The defamation case had been filed against Hussein in connection with stories and opinion pieces published in 1995 that accused El Alfy and his relatives of corruption and mismanagement. In 1996, a court convicted Hussein of defamation and fined him 15,000 Egyptian pounds. Hussein’s lawyers appealed the ruling at the time, but the appeal languished for 14 years.

The court of cassation, the country’s highest appeals court, suddenly decided to hear the appeal this spring. That the appeal was heard after such a long dormancy was seen by human rights lawyers as a political move aimed at keep Hussein in prison.

The court of cassation ordered a Cairo appeals court to retry the case. The lower court then issued its new decision in mid-June, imposing a one-year prison term. The new verdict “took everybody by surprise and obviously came about to keep an influential writer and opposition figure behind bars and far away from future parliamentary and presidential elections,” Gamal Eid, executive director of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, told CPJ.

“Dredging up 15-year-old op-eds to keep an editor and critic of President Mubarak behind bars is shameful,” said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. “The court of cassation should overturn this verdict, and President Mubarak should honor his 2004 pledge to end criminal defamation.”Egyptian authorities have refused to carry out 17 separate court orders directing the government to lift its ban on Al-Shaab, Eid said. Both the Labor Party and its newspaper, Al-Shaab, were banned in 2000 for instigating protests over a book they deemed “harmful to Islamic faith.”The new prison sentence imposed on Hussein comes amid a widespread campaign seeking his release and rising domestic concern about government intolerance of free expression.