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Dissent Crushed: Abdel Kareem, Egypt’s Free Speech Martyr

abdelkareem.jpg The four-year jail sentence of student blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman for the crimes of "contempt for religion" and "insulting the president" has dealt a harsh blow to the Egyptian blogosphere and free speech in the Middle East in the Internet age. The popular blogger known as Sandmonkey reports from Cairo on Abdel Kareem's story and the grave consequences of his case.

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February 23, 2007 - 7:09 am

Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Soliman was sentenced to four years in prison yesterday in a Cairo court. He will sit in jail for three years for the crime of “contempt for religion” and one year for “insulting the president”.

For those of you who haven’t been following the case, welcome to the Middle East. They do indeed have crimes like that around here.

Almost as disturbing as the sentence was the public reaction. As the court hearing ended, the media moved to the street in front of the courthouse and started interviewing people about what they thought of the trial. With the exception of human rights activists and bloggers, the Egyptian public seemed satisfied with the verdict, if not disappointed it wasn’t longer.

Many people expressed the view that Abdel Kareem should be killed for what he wrote, and each of them shared their preferred way to kill him: stabbing, hanging, and of course, the classic beheading. One actually asked a lawyer if it was legal to now kill him, since this verdict clearly brands him as an apostate, and the Sharia punishment for an apostasy is death. People were talking about killing him in the most casual manner, as if he was no longer a human being to them.

The whole sad story began almost a year ago, when Abdel Kareem wrote a blog post describing the prestigious Islamic University of Al Azhar – where he was enrolled a student – as “the other face of Al Qaeda.

When a copy of the post was forwarded to the Al Azhar administrators, they were, naturally, not amused, and a disciplinary hearing was set up.

During that hearing, they confronted Kareem with what he wrote about the university and about Islam in general (he had, among other posts, written one comparing The Prophet Mohammed and Ariel Sharon, and favoring Ariel Sharon as the better human being) He admitted to his writing unapologetically, and started to accuse them of suppressing his freedom of speech and conducting a Middle Age-style inquisition against him.

That same day Kareem was expelled from Al Azhar University.

A few days later, a university official went to the police and filed a police report accusing Abdel Kareem of insulting Islam and general contempt for religion.

The authorities, seeing that the report was filed by Al Azhar University, took it seriously and called Abdel Kareem in for questioning. Contrary to his lawyers’ advice, he refused to remain silent and proceeded to fight with and insult the prosecutor. The prosecutor decided to punish him by holding him for two weeks, “pending investigation.”

When Abdel Kareem faced the state prosecutor again two weeks later, it was too late. They were all, by then fully aware his writings and grossly offended, which helped add a personal touch to Abdel Kareem’s punishment from then on. He was refused the right to be released on bail, and finally was formally charged with his now three infamous charges: 1) disdain for religion, 2) insulting the President, 3) inciting sectarian strife and harming the stability of the country. All of these charges are very hard to define or defend against.

For the three months between his initial incarceration and trial, Abdel Kareem was held in solitary confinement, for fear his fellow inmates would find out why he was in jail and try to score extra points with God by harming him. The judge refused all of the requests from the defense to ease his conditions, causing Abdel Kareem’s lawyers to withdraw in protest.

Then, when it seemed things couldn’t get any worse, his Islamist father publicly announced that he intended to attend the sentencing in order to disown him in public, and demanded Sharia law be applied his son.

The day of the verdict promised to be nothing short of a circus, and it didn’t disappoint.

In front of the courtroom during his trial, scores of journalists gathered with their cameras, recorders and notepads. There was a buzz in the air, speculations about the sentencing, chatter over the meaning of the case, and the random conversation with curious by-standers who wanted to know what the big deal was, and who that very important Abdel Kareem person is. On sentencing day, the judge declared that he would announce his verdict at the end of the day, and wouldn’t allow cameras and journalists inside the courtroom prior to that. It seemed that the press was going to spend a few hours outside doing nothing.

But then a surprise — out of nowhere, a big surprise from an unrelated case. Abu Omar -the famous Egyptian imam who was allegedly kidnapped from Milan by the CIA and was transferred to Egypt, where he was tortured for 3 years straight- showed up and started an impromptu press conference, violating the conditions of his release. He told the reporters that he was not permitted to talk to the media and is constantly under watch, so when he heard about the trial he figured that it would have lots of reporters present and decided to show up. He showed reporters his torture scars and told them that he wants to get back to Italy and asked the Italian government to help him. After that, he immediately left the building.

Shortly after, the Abdel Kareem sentence was announced: four years in prison.

The consequences of the verdict and sentence are grave, both for Abdel Kareem and the for the Egyptian blogosphere in general.

If Abdel Kareem’s appeals are unsuccessful, he will have to spend the next four years in prison, where he could very likely get killed by an over-enthusiastic believer. His other option is to spend the next four years in solitary confinement, which won’t probably bode well for his mental health. Dead or crazy, those are his options now.

As far as the blogosphere, the implications are equally dangerous. This verdict sets a legal precedent for prosecuting someone for what they write on the Internet, on charges that are not easily defined or defended against. This could be used to prosecute any blogger the government feels like punishing, and serves a huge blow to freedom of speech in Egypt.

In the last years, the country’s blogosphere has been shedding light on the victims of police torture by showing videos of their mistreatment and identifying the police officers who committed those acts, which has embarrassed the Ministry of Interior and the government greatly. This is the real reason why they are now prosecuting bloggers. They have made an example out of Abdel Kareem, who was neither influential nor famous before, punishing him with an unprecedented long sentence in order to send a message to the rest of the blogosphere: This could happen to you, so watch what you write.

It is too early to judge whether this intimidation tactic will make some Egyptian bloggers tone down their rhetoric. However the Egyptian bloggers, at least the ones that have talked about it, remain defiant for now and express their view that they won’t let the verdict scare them or soften their writing. Whether that fighting spirit will linger if the government intensifies its crackdown on bloggers remains to be seen.

Sandmonkey is a pseudonymous blogger living in Egypt. He is the author of the blog Rantings of a Sandmonkey

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