New York, January 5, 2016 - Egyptian authorities should immediately release journalist Mahmoud al-Sakka, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. The arrest comes amid a series of repressive measures ahead of the anniversary of the January 25, 2011, uprising that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to resign.
Police arrested Al-Sakka, who writes for the independent news website Yanair ("January"), on December 30, and, first took him to Giza's Dokki police station, according to his lawyer, Doaa Mostafa. From there, police transferred him to an unknown location and held him incommunicado for four days before bringing him to the Homeland Security headquarters in Cairo. There prosecutors ordered him detained for 15 days on charges of planning illegal protests to overthrow the government and belonging to an illegal organization, which they identified as "the January 25 youth movement," according to reports. Mostafa said on social media that Al-Sakka told her that police had beaten him in the Dokki police station and at the Homeland Security building where he is currently detained. From the time he was arrested to the time he surfaced at the Homeland Security headquarters, his family, friends and lawyer did not know where he was.
"In its ongoing attempts to control the press and terrify critics, the Egyptian government shows total disregard for its own laws and processes," CPJ's Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said from Washington DC. "We call on Egyptian authorities to immediately release Mahmoud Al-Sakka and to stop harassing and arresting journalists."
Al-Sakka's work for Yanair has focused on politics, including news about political parties, parliament, and labor strikes. Al-Sakka's family told reporters that police officers raided their home the day after the journalist went missing, but refused to give them any information about his whereabouts.
His arrest comes amid increased reports of arrests, including three made on charges of "subversive Facebook activity," and raids of art spaces and a publishing house. In recent days, courts have also sentenced two journalists to prison. A Cairo court on January 3 sentenced Mohamed Abdel Moneim, a journalist for the privately owned website Tahya Masr, to three years in prison on charges of participating in an unlicensed, April 2015 protest and carrying Molotov cocktails. Abdel Moneim has been in custody since his arrest at the protest, which took place in Cairo's Dar al-Salam neighborhood.
The administrative chief of Tahya Masr testified in court that Abdel Moneim was on assignment for the outlet to cover the protest, and was not participating in the protest itself. The judges decided not to recognize Abdel Moneim as a journalist because he is not a registered member of the Egyptian Journalists' Syndicate, according to the state-owned daily Al-Ahram. Membership in the syndicate, the only officially recognized press union, is not open to online journalists.
In a separate case, a Cairo appeals court on December 28 sentenced television host Islam Al-Behery to a year in prison on charges of defaming Islam, reducing a sentence handed down in May 2015 of five years in prison. Al-Behery, who was taken into custody after the sentencing, hosted a religious talk-show, "Ma'a Islam" (With Islam) on the privately owned satellite channel Alkahera Walnas.
Lawyer Mohamed Abdel Salam, who represents Al-Azhar, an influential religious institution, filed a lawsuit against Al-Behery in April 2015 for showing "contempt of religion" in statements made on his show. Al-Azhar is also seeking a court order to ban Al-Behery from appearing on any television program, and to have past episodes of "Ma'a Islam" removed from YouTube, according to reports. The next hearing in those proceedings is scheduled for February 14.
Al-Behery's lawyer told reporters that he will appeal the verdict on the grounds that another court on June 2015 acquitted him of the same charges in a different case, and Egyptian law holds that a person cannot be tried twice for the same crime. According to a 2015 report, he faces 45 lawsuits stemming from statements he made on his show. A court is scheduled to hear his petition to be released pending appeal on January 11, according to the independent daily Al-Shorouk.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The text has been modified in the first and third paragraph to correct the spelling of Mahmoud Al-Sakka's name.