CAIRO—An Egyptian military tribunal convicted a blogger of insulting the army and sentenced him to three years in prison, further raising activists’ fears that the army is against greater freedom of expression and political reform.
The Justice Ministry, meanwhile, moved forward in its corruption investigation of former regime stalwarts, announcing the 15 day detention of Safwat el-Sherif, the secretary general of the ruling party and once one of the most powerful men in the country.
The military court on Sunday issued the sentence against 26-year-old Maikel Nabil Sanad, who carried reports of abuses by the military on his blog and accused it of still being loyal to ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The sentence was passed without the presence of his lawyers, according to a statement by seven Cairo-based rights groups.
It was the first trial of a blogger by Egypt’s military rulers, who took charge of the country after former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted by anti-government protests Feb. 11 after an 18-day popular uprising.
Rights lawyers say the sentence has wide implications for freedom of expression in post-Mubarak Egypt, and could set a precedent for anyone seeking to expose wrongdoing or abuses by the military.
A member of the military council, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar told an Egyptian private TV station, ONTV, Monday, the armed forces is open to criticism — but only up to a point.
“There is a difference between criticism with good intentions from a citizen, a journalist or a broadcaster, who mean the public good. There is no problem with that,” he said. “The problem is in questioning the intentions (of the army).”
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said it was “shocked” by the three-year jail sentence, asking the authorities to review it and free him “without delay.”
The case against Sanad, who was arrested two weeks ago at his home, was based on a blog post titled “The people and the army were never hand in hand,” questioning the military’s continued allegiance to Mubarak; as well as Facebook postings reporting allegations of abuse.
“Maikel was posting on his blog news published by rights groups, and newspaper clippings” among other things, said Adel Ramadan, Sanad’s lawyer. “The danger extends to all bloggers, rights activists and journalists.”
In the same interview with ONTV, however, Maj. Gen. Ismail Etman said not only were Sanad’s postings insulting, but he also agitated against the country’s policy of mandatory military conscription, which he said would “affect people.”
He added that Sanad might have “foreign links,” without elaborating. Attributing foreign agendas to political activists was also a common tactic used by Mubarak’s regime to tarnish its opponents.
Rights groups have criticized the new military rulers for arbitrary arrests and speedy trials for civilians.
Ramadan said more than 10,000 civilians have been convicted and sentenced by military tribunals since the army took over two months ago.
Military trials are swift and do not follow the procedures and rules of evidence of civil courts.
In contrast, the investigations of the top officials of the previous regime is taking place through the civil court system, provoking accusations of a double standard.
In their interview, the generals justified the difference because cases involving unrest, the army or threats to stability were dealt with by military tribunals, while the corruption cases were the responsibility of the civil justice system.
“If there are cases influencing the security of Egypt or the armed forces … we have to act swiftly and refer them to military court,” said Etman.
The investigation of so many of the top officials Mubarak’s regime have transfixed the country who once thought these people were above the law and proves to some that the country really is changing for the better.
El-Sherif, for instance, served for more than 20 years as Mubarak’s powerful information minister, and has been a public figure for the last half century. He was one of the president’s top advisers and was seen as one of the main architects of Egypt’s police state.
Over the past week, former prime minister Ahmed Nazif and the president’s chief of staff, Zakariya Azmi, were also detained for 15 days pending corruption investigations.
For many, however, the military’s recent abuses outweigh the corruption investigation.
Most Egyptians expressed joy when the military stepped in to remove Mubarak, chanting the slogan “the military and the people go hand in hand,” but tension has since crept into the army’s relations with the population.
In the early hours of the morning Saturday, soldiers forcefully stormed a protest camp on to break up a sit-in, killing at least one demonstrator and wounding dozens. The protesters had been critical of the military.
Around a thousand protesters have now started a new sit-in at the country’s iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo demanding the resignation of the minister of defence and head of the army, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Sanad’s case also shows that the military cannot be criticized.
“It sets the military up as an establishment beyond criticism and beyond being held accountable,” she said. “It sends exactly the wrong signal at a time when you are supposed to be transitioning away from abusive practices combined with official denial and failure to investigate.”
It was also the harshest sentence against a blogger since 2004, when one was convicted of insulting the former president and offending Islam and sentenced to four years in prison.