The prison sentence handed down to CTUWS coordinator Kamal Abbas is interpreted as an attack on the effective defence of workers' rights, writes Faiza Rady
"It is clear the judge's decision to give me a one-year jail sentence is political," Kamal Abbas, coordinator of the Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS), told Al-Ahram Weekly. "More frightening than the sentence though is the fact that evidence that was clearly verified was ignored. If the court of appeals upholds the lower court's ruling then the sentence will be 'a matter of 'destiny', as the Arabic saying goes."
The law suit for alleged "slander and defamation of character" against Abbas -- and his co-defendant lawyer Mohamed Helmi -- was filed by Mohamed Mustafa Ibrahim, chairman of the board of directors of the youth centre in 15 May City. Ibrahim is also a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), and was an NDP candidate in last year's parliamentary elections.
Ibrahim's case against Abbas and Helmi was based on a report of an investigation, published in the CTUWS's magazine Kalam Sinai'ia (Workers' Talk), into financial and administrative irregularities in the running of the youth centre. Ibrahim filed his lawsuit shortly after the government's April closure -- for "security reasons" -- of CTUWS's Helwan- based headquarters and two affiliate branches, one in Nag' Hamadi, Qena governorate, the other at Mehala Al-Kobra in the Delta.
Ibrahim filed three petitions against Abbas in his capacity as CTUWS coordinator, claiming that the Kalam Sinai'ia article "publicly defamed him as a state-appointed civil servant". He based his case on laws that criminalise false reporting and decree that anyone who "publishes false news, statements or rumours likely to disturb public order" may face a prison sentence, the same laws that were used in the 13 September ruling against four editors-in-chief who received prison sentences for reporting rumours pertaining to the health of President Hosni Mubarak. A total of 11 journalists have been sentenced for "writing" and/or "publishing offences" -- which, reports the Index for Free Expression, an online watchdog on censorship, can also include misquotes -- in recent months. On 24 September, Anwar El-Hawari, editor of the opposition daily Al-Wafd, and two of the paper's journalists, received two-year sentences for misquoting the minister of justice.
"It is no coincidence that I was sentenced at about the same time as the journalists and editors," says Abbas. "The court had regularly adjourned the case since May, deciding to issue a ruling only on 21 September. Prosecuting and sentencing journalists for publishing offences is all part of the government's general crack-down on civil liberties."
The case against Abbas, though, involved no misquotes. Nor did it cross red lines traditionally associated with the president, members of his cabinet or other high-level officials. The alleged slander of Ibrahim, the youth centre chairman and NDP member, involved Kalam Sinai'ia 's reporting of an investigation into mismanagement and questionable financial practices conducted by the centre's own Committee of Financial and Administrative Inspection.
On 2 September, following that investigation and on the recommendation of the president of the National Council for Youth and Sports, Cairo Governor Abdel-Azim Wazir suspended Ibrahim and his board of directors. Yet three weeks after Ibrahim was effectively fired for managerial and financial malpractice Abbas finds himself facing a year in prison for slander simply because Kalam Sinai'ia reported the malpractices.
"What does it mean," asked the CTUWS in a public statement, "when courts seek to imprison citizens, who publish the facts about corruption cases? The allegations against Ibrahim were found to be true and were the basis for the legal decision [to suspend Ibrahim and his board of directors]. Does it mean that the courts are offering immunity to corrupt officials, that they are offering protection against any criticism or disclosure?"
The witch hunt against journalists and others for so-called publishing offences is based on Article 188 of the Egyptian code of law, which many believe is incompatible with the constitution, Article 47 of which states "freedom of opinion shall be guaranteed. Every individual shall have the right to express his opinion and to publicise it verbally, in writing or by other means of expression within the limits of the law."
But the sentence against Abbas and the forced closure of CTUWS has nothing really to do with "publishing offences" vs freedom of expression. The CTUWS had been functioning freely for 17 years, and Kalam Sinai'ia has never before been censored or targeted by dubious lawsuits. "The attack on CTUWS is part of the intensification of the assault of the Mubarak regime against its opponents," says Egyptian labour historian Joel Beinin.
CTUWS provides an independent alternative to the government-controlled General Federation of Trade Unions. Established in 1990 by Kamal Abbas and the late labour lawyer Youssef Darwish, CTUWS offered legal services to workers, counselled them about their rights, organised educational workshops and reported on labour-rights violations. They also publish the only workers' magazine in the country, providing a unique focus on workers' issues.
The action against Abbas and CTUWS is a result of that independence at a time when workers, long thought to have been neutralised by the government, are beginning once again to organise and act in the face of a resurgent privatisation drive that threatens their livelihoods and rampant inflation that has steadily eaten into their ability to afford the basics necessary for a dignified life.
Egypt has witnessed an unprecedented wave of strikes since December 2006 after the government had consistently reneged on its promises. "The government feels threatened by the strikes, especially actions taken by the militant Mehala Al-Kubra textile workers whose latest strike was settled last week," explains Abbas. "They need a scapegoat for their failed policies. This is why they closed down our offices, refuse to license us and continue to accuse the CTUWS of inciting the strikes. The allegations are flattering but untrue. How could we possibly have incited the tens of thousands of workers who have gone on strike since December?"
The CTUWS's real offence is to provide a model for what an alternative independent trade union service might accomplish, even though it is straight-jacketed as an NGO. If nothing else, the CTUWS has contributed to workers' determination to reject the government-controlled GFTU and demand free unions. This was recognised last April by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which condemned the CTUWS's closure and urged President Mubarak to rescind the orders.
"In Egypt workers are struggling for respect of fundamental labour standards," said Guy Ryder, secretary-general of the ITUC. "The CTUWS plays an active and useful role in providing support to Egyptian workers."