Egypt detains journalist on drug charges in Alexandria

New York, November 22, 2010–Egyptian authorities should immediately release Youssef Shaaban, a reporter for the online newspaper Al-Badil who was arrested while covering street protests in Alexandria, and drop the criminal charges against him, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.  

Shaaban was arrested Friday during a demonstration against a new construction project in the Abu Suleyman neighborhood that local residents say threatens their buildings with collapse. Dozens of people were rounded up but most of them were released, according to news reports. Shaaban is accused of possessing drugs, according to his lawyer, who did not specify what kind of drugs he is accused of possessing or what sort of punishment he may face.

Ahmed Elmasry, an Egyptian blogger and Shaaban’s friend, told CPJ that Shaaban was detained several times this year, in April, May, and September, while he was covering street protests calling for reforms in Egypt and against the succession of Gamal Mubarak, the son of the Egyptian president. He said that during these arrests police officers threatened Shaaban: “They told him, ‘We will teach you how to write,'” he said. Elmasry also called the drug possession charges absurd: “He doesn’t smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol,” he said.

Ahmed Mamdouh, Shaaban’s lawyer, said the journalist was interrogated without an attorney present. He said he believes the reason behind Shaaban’s arrest was a recent article in which he exposed police brutality and cases of security forces robbing protesters of their cell phones and personal belongings.

“The criminal charges against Youssef Shaaban appear to be a pretext to stop him from covering street protests or from writing critically about the authorities,” said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa Program coordinator. “We call on the Egyptian authorities to release him immediately and drop these charges.”

Mamdouh told CPJ that leveling criminal drug-related charges against a journalist sets a dangerous precedent and is meant to intimidate journalists. The government has used such charges against the political opposition before but the lawyer said this is a new and unusual tactic to use against a journalist.