Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 December 1999
Issue No. 459
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Round two to Al-Shaab

By Gamal Essam El-Din

Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed decided on Sunday that three journalists with Al-Shaab, mouthpiece of the Islamist-oriented Labour Party, be immediately released from prison pending a re-trial. Abdel-Wahed's decision followed an order by the Court of Cassation that Magdi Hussein, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, journalist Salah Bedeiwi and cartoonist Essam Hanafi, stand another trial before another circuit of the Criminal Court. A date for the new trial has yet to be set.

In August, the Southern Cairo Criminal Court had ordered the maximum penalty against the three Al-Shaab journalists after finding them guilty of slandering Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Youssef Wali. In dozens of articles over one year, the newspaper had launched a fierce campaign against Wali, which it described as "part of a long war against a circle in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and Agriculture Ministry which has gone beyond all limits in normalising relations with the Israelis". The newspaper went as far as to accuse Wali of "high treason".

Each of the three journalists was given two years in jail and fined LE20,000. Hussein and Bedeiwi turned themselves in on the same day the sentences were handed down while Hanafi remained on the run until the Court of Cassation set a 21 November date for hearing their appeal. The Criminal Court, whose sentence was generally viewed as the toughest ever handed down against journalists, found the three guilty of libelling and slandering Wali, who is also NDP secretary-general. Adel Hussein, the party's secretary-general and former chief editor of Al-Shaab, was spared a prison sentence but fined LE20,000.

The four journalists had also been ordered by the Criminal Court to pay Wali an initial compensation of LE501, which meant that he could sue them for damages for much larger sums. Two months ago, Wali filed a lawsuit against Al-Shaab, seeking a hefty compensation of LE20 million. Now that the Court of Cassation has ordered a re-trial, Wali's compensation case must be postponed pending the outcome of the new trial.

The Court of Cassation concluded that the journalists were not given adequate opportunity to defend themselves because the Criminal Court turned down their request to hear Wali's testimony.

The court's order was hailed by Al-Shaab journalists and Labour Party officials. They described it as "an initial triumph in the long-term war against the advocates of normalisation with Israel". Ali Fat'h El-Bab, the sole representative of the Labour Party in the People's Assembly, said the court's ruling was a historic landmark in support of freedom of expression.

"Wali is an influential figure. He is the NDP secretary-general and emerged victorious in the latest cabinet reshuffle," Fat'h El-Bab said. However, he added that this did not carry much weight with the Court of Cassation. "The ruling, consequently, reinforces confidence in the judicial authority in general and the Court of Cassation in particular because of its basic role in preserving the rights of citizens, redressing injustice, and quashing legal mistakes," he said.

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