Washington, May 31, 2016 -- Egyptian prosecutors should drop all charges against leaders of the country's Journalists' Syndicate and cease harassing them, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Police detained syndicate chair Yehia Qallash and board members Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim for more than 12 hours for interrogation on Sunday, freeing them on Monday, pending trial, according to the syndicate and news reports.
Police on Sunday morning summoned Qallash, al-Balshy, and Abdel Rahim for questioning at central Cairo's Qasr al-Nil police station. When the three arrived on Sunday afternoon, police held them until early Monday morning, interrogating them on charges of "spreading false news" and of harboring fugitives wanted by police, their lawyer, Khaled Ali, told reporters. Police early Monday morning ordered Qallash, al-Balshy, and Abdel Rahim's release on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,000) each, pending trial, their lawyer said, but the journalists refused to post bail, arguing that the requirement was unconstitutional. Police then held the three for several more hours before releasing them without bail, according to a statement Qallash published Monday, and Al-Balshy's account to The Associated Press. Their trial is scheduled to begin on June 4, according to press reports.
The journalists' detention was the latest escalation in a confrontation between the syndicate and the government. Police detained dozens of journalists attempting to cover April 25 protests at the Journalists' Syndicate headquarters in central Cairo, one of the few places protests were tolerated under former President Hosni Mubarak. On April 30, two journalists sought in connection with those protests, Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka, took refuge in the syndicate's headquarters, staging a sit-in protest to call attention to their plight. The following evening police entered the building and arrested them. Qallash protested the arrest raid in comments to the media, and said police had used force in the arrest, which the Interior Ministry subsequently denied. The charges against the three journalists are in relation to this raid and subsequent news coverage of the event, according to Ali, their lawyer.
"Authorities are pursuing Yehia Qallash, Khaled al-Balshy, and Gamal Abdel Rahim for trying to defend the Egyptian media against a thin-skinned and brutal security apparatus," CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said. "We call on Egyptian prosecutors to drop these charges immediately and stop harassing journalists."
Thousands of journalists demanded the resignation of Egyptian Interior Minister Magdy Abdel Ghaffar, an apology from Presdient Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and a list of reforms at a May 4 general meeting of syndicate members. Qallash later sought to ease the standoff with the government, dropping his demand for a presidential apology and not repeating his demand for the interior minister's resignation, according to The Associated Press.
Egypt was the second worst jailer of journalists worldwide on December 1, 2015, according to CPJ's most recent annual prison census.