Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
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Al-Shaab journalists may go free

By Khaled Dawoud

The Court of Cassation -- the nation's highest -- is due to issue its ruling on Sunday in the case of three Al-Shaab journalists who were sentenced in August to two years imprisonment and a fine of LE20,000 each for slandering Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali.

Magdi Hussein, editor-in-chief of Al-Shaab and a member of the Press Syndicate's council, journalist Salah Bedeiwi and cartoonist Essam Hanafi were convicted of libel and slander after launching a fierce campaign in the newspaper for months against Wali. They accused him of "treason" for championing the normalisation of relations with Israel, allegedly importing sub-standard food products and seeds and misusing power to serve personal interests. Senior Al-Shaab writer and former chief editor, Adel Hussein, was fined LE20,000 for participating in the campaign against Wali, who is also secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

The Court of Cassation held only one session last week before it decided to book the case for sentencing, indicating, as Al-Shaab deputy-editor-in-chief, Talaat Rumeih, believes that "the outcome will be positive, inshallah (God willing)." He added, "we believed since the first day the case opened in August that the judge was not going to be fair to us. He was rushing the case and refused to listen to any of our demands, particularly summoning Wali for questioning."

The imprisonment sentence passed against the Al-Shaab journalists was the maximum penalty provided by Egyptian law for slandering government officials. Although many journalists disapproved of the campaign against Wali on the grounds that it was exaggerated and lacked evidence, the sentences came as a setback for those who have campaigned for years to have the legal provisions which allow imprisonment for publication offences abolished. The Press Syndicate and human rights groups believe that the punishment should be limited to financial fines, as is the situation in most countries, so as not to deter journalists from freely expressing their views and criticising public officials.

Magdi Hussein and Bedeiwi turned themselves in on the same day the sentences were passed by the Criminal Court, while cartoonist Hanafi remained on the run until the Court of Cassation set the 21 November date for the start of hearings. According to the law, those convicted by the Criminal Court can file an appeal with the Court of Cassation only if they are already serving their sentences. Hanafi's lawyer accompanied him last week to Mazra'at Tora Prison, south of Cairo, where Hussein and Bedeiwi had already been locked up for more than four months.

Samir Bagouri, a human rights lawyer and a member of the defence team, also told Al-Ahram Weekly that lawyers are optimistic that the sentence will be quashed by the Court of Cassation. "We think that the court will annul the sentence and order a re-trial by another circuit of the Criminal Court," Bagouri said. He added that the main reason for his optimism was the report issued by Abdel-Mo'tamad Abul-Qassem, a prosecutor at the Court of Cassation, a few days before the opening of the case last week. Abul-Qassem, like Al-Shaab lawyers, asked the Court of Cassation to quash the sentence because of several "legal mistakes" made by the Criminal Court. "The prosecutor's report provides guidelines to the judges of the Court of Cassation and, in most previous cases, his argument was taken into consideration," Bagouri added.

The prosecutor's report argued that the Criminal Court "infringed on the right of Al-Shaab lawyers to make their case" when it repeatedly rejected their request to summon Wali to testify before the court.

Adel Eid, an Islamist lawyer defending Al-Shaab, told the Court of Cassation last week that the Criminal Court had rejected the lawyers' request for translating into Arabic "hundreds of documents" they presented to support the accusations against Wali. Most of these "documents", however, were newspapers and magazines clippings, including several Israeli publications, which reported on visits by Israeli officials to Egypt to meet Wali, or joint cooperation projects between the agriculture ministries of the two countries. Al-Shaab accused Wali of sending "hundreds" of Egyptian youths to Israel for training "which is a form of normalisation rejected by the Egyptian people."

However, it is unlikely that any Egyptian court will take this accusation seriously in view of the fact that a peace treaty providing for normalisation was signed by the two countries in 1979 and any exchanged visits or cooperation projects are approved by the government.

Al-Shaab lawyers, by insisting on summoning Wali to court, were apparently hoping to turn his testimony into "a public trial of his policies and cooperation with Israel". This was the same tactic Al-Shaab lawyers used more than two years ago in the libel lawsuit brought against them by then Interior Minister Hassan El-Alfi whom the newspaper accused of corruption and misuse of power. Over many sessions, Al-Shaab lawyers hammered El-Alfi with embarrassing questions about his income, that of his family and allegations of corruption within the ministry. A settlement was reached between El-Alfi and Al-Shaab shortly after the former was sacked from his post as lax security measures by his ministry officials were blamed for the Luxor massacre of November 1997.

El-Alfi's son, Alaa, won a libel lawsuit against Al-Shaab two years ago. Magdi Hussein and cartoonist Mohamed Hilal were sentenced to one year imprisonment each. However, the Court of Cassation quashed the sentence and ordered a re-trial after the two had spent four months in prison. A second trial never took place in view of the out-of-court settlement.

Observers do not expect the same scenario to be repeated with Wali if the Court of Cassation quashes the ruling and orders a re-trial on Sunday. Wali is a political heavyweight and astute politician who is unlikely to be dragged into a public fight with Al-Shaab like El-Alfi.

A month ago, Magdi Hussein told the Weekly in an interview at Tora Prison where he is serving his sentence that he did not regret the campaign he launched against Wali "because it is my duty to fight corruption in this country." Yet, he sounded frustrated by the "weakness of the calls made by journalists for our release."

If the Court of Cassation quashes the sentence, Magdi Hussein, Bedeiwi and Hanafi will be released pending a re-trial.

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