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

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An English hero for the ages: Ian Botham at 60

Botham blends his sportsmanship and deep-seated passion for cricket with a lust for life.

Begging W H Auden’s pardon, it is possible both to honour and to value the vertical man, and in the case of Ian Botham, who turned 60 on 24 November, it is our bounden duty. No sportsman has given Britons so much to enjoy in the past half-century and no sportsman is loved more. Two decades after he retired from first-class cricket, his reputation as one of life’s champions remains unassailable.

No mere cricketer is he, either. Botham is a philanthropist, having raised more than £12m for various charities, notably Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research. In December, 30 years after his first walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End, he will set off again, in South Africa, where England are on tour. And he really does walk, too, not amble. As somebody who accompanied him on one of his dozen walks said: “You can’t keep up with him. The man is a phenomenon.”

Of all postwar sportsmen, only Bobby Charlton and, at a pinch, Henry Cooper come close to matching Botham’s enduring popularity. But Charlton, a shy man who was scarred by the Munich plane crash of 1958 (and may never have recovered from its emotional effects), has never comfortably occupied a public stage; and Cooper, being a boxer, had a solitary role. Botham, by contrast, spoke for England. Whenever he picked up his bat, or had a ball in his hand, he left spectators in no doubt.

Others have also spoken for England. Bobby Moore and Martin Johnson, captains respectively of England’s World Cup-winning football and rugby teams, were great players but did not reach out to people as naturally as Botham. Nick Faldo, Lester Piggott, Sebastian Coe and, to bring us up to date, Lewis Hamilton have beaten the best in the world, but they lacked those qualities that Botham displayed so freely. That is not to mark them down. They were, and are, champions. But Botham was born under a different star.

It was John Arlott, the great cricket commentator, who first spotted his uniqueness. Covering a match at Taunton in 1974, he asked the young colt to carry his bags up the rickety staircase to the press box, where Arlott, wearing his oenophile’s hat, pulled out a bottle of red wine and invited Botham to drink. Forty years later Botham is a discriminating wine drinker – and maker. Along with his friend and fellow England great Bob Willis, and their Australian wine­making pal Geoff Merrill, he has put his name to a notable Shiraz, “BMW”.

Arlott, with his nose for talent and good company, saw something in the young Botham that Brian Close, his captain at Somerset, was beginning to bring out. Later, Mike Brearley, as England captain, drew out something even more remarkable. As Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote, you’ve got to be carefully taught. And Botham, a fine team man as well as a supreme individual performer, has never withheld praise from those who enabled him to find his voice.

If sport reveals character, then cricket is the game that reveals it most clearly. In no other sport is the individual performance rooted so firmly in a team context. Every over brings a contest of skill and intelligence between batsman and bowler but only a team can win the match. “A cricketer,” as Arlott said, “is showing you something of himself all the time.”

Cricket also reveals national character more than any other sport. Football may be the most popular game in the world but cricket, and cricketers, tell us far more about England and Englishness. It is instructive, in this regard, to hear what Philippe Auclair, a French journalist and author long resident in London, has to say about Botham: “He is essentially an 18th-century Englishman.” In one! It’s not difficult to sense a kinship with Tom Jones, Fielding’s embodiment of 18th-century life, who began his journey, as readers may recall, in Somerset.

A country boy who played for Worcestershire after leaving Somerset, and who lives by choice in North Yorkshire, Botham is an old-fashioned Englishman. Although nobody has yet found him listening to the parson’s sermon, he is conservative with a small and upper-case C, a robust monarchist, handy with rod and gun, and happiest with a beaker in front of him. He represents (though he would never claim to be a representative) all those people who understand instinctively what England means, not in a narrow way, but through something that is in the blood.

Above all, he will be remembered for ever as the hero of 1981. Even now it takes some believing that Botham bowled and batted with such striking success that the Australians, who were one up after two Tests, were crushed. Some of us who were actually at Headingley for the famous third Test – thousands who claim to have been there were not – recall the odds of 500-1 on an England victory going up on the electronic scoreboard that Saturday evening.

Botham made 149 not out as England, following on, beat the Aussies by 18 runs. For three hours the country seemed to stop. In the next Test, at Edgbaston, Botham took five wickets for one run as Australia fell under his spell. Then, at Old Trafford, on a dank Saturday afternoon, he played the most memorable innings of his life and one of the greatest innings ever played by an Englishman: 118 magnificent, joyful runs. Joy: that’s the word. Botham brought joy into people’s lives.

Yet it was the final Test at the Oval, which ended in a draw, that brought from him a performance no less remarkable than those from before. He bowled 89 overs in that match, flat out, continuing to run in when others withdrew with injury. That was the team man coming to the fore. Little wonder his comrades thought the world of him.

Modest, loyal, respectful to opponents, grateful to all who have lent him a hand, and supported throughout a turbulent life by Kath, his rock of a wife, and their three children, this is a cricketing hero to rank with W G Grace, Jack Hobbs, Wally Hammond and Fred Trueman. A feature in the lives of all who saw him, and a very English hero. 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State