Shooting the messenger

Human Rights Watch's Elijah Zarwan relates the story of Abd al-Monim Mahmud - an Egyptian journalist

CAIRO – Abd al-Monim Mahmud, a young, articulate Egyptian television journalist and blogger with a taste for Martin Scorsese movies, sits in a dirty, overcrowded prison on the outskirts of Cairo. Security officers arrested him at Cairo airport last week as he tried to board a plane for Sudan, where he was to work on a television story about human rights abuses in the Arab world for the London-based Al-Hiwar satellite channel.

Egypt’s notorious State Security Investigations department has issued a preliminary report on its investigation into Mahmud and, according to one of his lawyers, cited his public criticisms of the government’s human rights record, and specifically its use of torture. The day after his arrest, a prosecutor interrogated Mahmud for almost a full day and charged him with “belonging to a banned organization,” with “being an administrator in a banned organization,” and funding an armed group.

Mahmud has made no secret of his affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. The organization, despite having renounced violence for decades and being the largest opposition bloc in Egypt’s parliament, remains banned in Egypt. But the reason authorities targeted Mahmud for arrest, out of the tens of thousands Brotherhood members, was his outspoken criticism of human rights abuses in Egypt and his broad contacts with foreign journalists and secular pro-democracy activists.

In addition to his journalistic work, Mahmud ran a blog in English and Arabic called “Ana Ikhwan,” (I am a Brother), in which he criticized human rights abuses in Egypt. He wrote about being tortured in 2003, and about the sentencing in February 2007 of Abd al-Karim Nabil Sulaiman, a secular government critic, to four years in prison for “incitement to hate Muslims” and “insulting the president.”

Mahmud also helped run the Muslim Brotherhood’s English-language Web site and assisted families of Brotherhood detainees facing military trials to start blogs to campaign for their release. In the weeks before his arrest, he had spoken out about torture in Egypt at international conferences in Doha and Cairo and in interviews with journalists and human rights organizations.

It was Mahmoud’s willingness to speak out, not his membership, that got him into hot water with the authorities. Once again, the Egyptian government is prosecuting a journalist for reporting on human rights abuses when it should be focusing its energies on ending those abuses.

Mahmud’s arrest is the latest in a series of governmental reprisals against outspoken critics this year. On 12 March 2007 the Alexandria Court of Appeals upheld the four-year prison sentence against Sulaiman, a blogger who criticized Islam and President Hosni Mubarak. Two days earlier, secular activist and blogger Mohammad al-Sharqawi – himself a victim of police torture – returned home to find his laptop, which he said contained an unreleased video depicting police abuse, had been stolen. Cash and other valuables in the apartment were untouched. And on 13 January 2007 security officers detained Al-Jazeera journalist Huwaida Taha Mitwalli as she attempted to board a plane to Doha. They confiscated tapes of a documentary she was making about torture in Egypt and subsequently charged her with “practicing activities that harm the national interest of the country,” and “possessing and giving false pictures about the internal situation in Egypt that could undermine the dignity of the country.”

So this year alone, Egypt imprisoned one blogger for “incitement to hate Muslims” and another for belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. The real target in both cases was freedom of expression.

Jailing journalists who report on human rights abuses is a transparent, heavy-handed and illegal attempt to intimidate and silence government critics. The government would be better served and would more effectively silence its critics by addressing their complaints. A first step would be dropping the charges against Mahmud and setting him free.

Elijah Zarwan is an Egypt researcher at Human Rights Watch