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Egypt court convicts opposition leader, journalists of libel

[JURIST] Two Egyptian journalists and an opposition leader have been sentenced to a month in prison after being convicted in absentia of libel, court officials said Sunday. The journalists, Anwar el-Hawari and Younes Darwish, of opposition party Al-Wafd's daily newspaper and Al-Wafd leader Mahmoud Abaza, have appealed the verdict and remain free on bail. Two lawyers from the ruling National Democratic Party [party website] brought the action against the defendants after Al-Wafd [media website, in Arabic] published a story about an illegal land transaction from the Ministry of Religious Endowments at a secret auction, despite the fact that Abaza has immunity as a parliamentary member himself.

Earlier this month, the trial [JURIST report] of controversial al-Dustour [media website] editor Ibrahim Eissa [al-Ahram profile] began on charges of allegedly spreading rumors about the health of Egyptian President Hosny Mubarak [official profile] in an August newspaper report. Last June, Eissa was sentenced [JURIST report] to one year in prison for publishing a report critical of Mubarak, but an appeals court reduced the sentence to a $4,000 fine. Under Egyptian law, citizens may file lawsuits against individuals who make statements that harm society, and the accused can face criminal punishment if found guilty. Last month, a court sentenced the editors of four tabloids [JURIST report] for publishing criticisms of Mubarak and the ruling National Democratic Party.

Many rights groups have criticized Egypt in recent years for its stance on freedom of expression. Last month, the Bush administration, in commenting on a recent order by the Egypt government mandating the closure of the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid [advocacy website], expressed concern about "setbacks on press freedom and civil society" in Egypt, calling recent decisions a "contradiction" of the Egyptian government's "stated commitment to expand democratic rights." Mubarak has previously pledged to decriminalize press offenses [JURIST report], but has yet to do so. AP has more.

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