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Blogger gets 4-year prison sentence in Egypt

Miret el Naggar and Hannah Allam
McClatchy Newspapers

CAIRO, Egypt -- An Egyptian court on Thursday sentenced an anti-government Internet blogger to a four-year prison term in a landmark case that has sent shockwaves through the country's growing community of online dissidents.

The case against Kareem Amer, 23, a former student at the Islamic institute of al-Azhar, was Egypt's first prosecution of a blogger specifically for online writings; other bloggers had been detained for their offline political activities.

Amer received three years in prison on charges of contempt of religion and an additional year for defaming U.S.-allied President Hosni Mubarak.

"He's only 23 years old. This verdict will ruin his future," said Mohamed el Sharkawy, another blogger and opposition figure who was arrested and allegedly tortured in a crackdown on dissidents last year. "Security officials tailor-made this charge to shove bloggers and activists into jail. This means that the state cannot tolerate anyone voicing his opinion."

While human rights groups denounced Amer's sentence as further evidence of Mubarak's authoritarian regime backsliding on promised changes, the blogger's postings about Islam were so inflammatory that even some of the most fervent free-speech advocates couldn't bring themselves to support him. As a result, the case not only set a precedent for prosecuting bloggers, but also forced debate on the limits of religious and political expression in conservative Egypt.

"The bloggers are having deep disputes over whether to support this guy or not," said Tarek Mounir of the Cairo office of Reporters Without Borders, a press freedom watchdog group. "The bloggers here are like the political horizon. Some of them are Islamists."

To some activists here, the young blogger is a powerful symbol of the fight for free speech and a tolerant, moderate Islam. To many others, however, he's a limelight-seeker willing to offend the sensibilities of his countrymen for a few minutes of fame.

Amer's own family, said to be conservative Muslims, publicly disowned him this week in an interview with the local Masry al-Youm newspaper.

Several sympathetic bloggers drove to Alexandria, north of Cairo, to attend Amer's trial. Within minutes of the judge handing down the sentence, word of the verdict spread to Cairo and other cities via text messages, e-mail and blogs.

"A very sad day for freedom of expression in Egypt," read the message that accompanied news of the sentence on the popular Cairo-based blog Arabist.net.

"He was very extremist," said Mohamed Adel, an 18-year-old Islamist blogger who said he supported neither Amer's writings nor the government's punishment of him. "He was talking crazy. His writings were far from true."

For two years, Amer lashed out at government and religious institutions, taking particular aim at his own school, al-Azhar, one of the bastions of Sunni Muslim thought. He accused al-Azhar clerics of advocating terrorism, stifling progress and shilling for Mubarak's government.

According to a report by Amnesty International, Amer was detained briefly in October 2005 for tarnishing Islam in his writings about sectarian clashes between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Shortly after that, he was expelled from al-Azhar for blasphemy. He has been in jail on the latest charges since November 2006.

"Al-Azhar and its university and its professors and its sheiks, you will end up in the dust bin of history and you won't find anyone to cry for you. Rest assured that your state will vanish," Amer wrote in a posting in October 2006, shortly before he was detained.

While Egyptian bloggers debate the merit of his case, foreigners have turned him into a cause celebre. In the past week, demonstrators in New York, Washington, London, Rome and several European capitals marched in front of Egyptian embassies with banners that read, "Free Kareem." Newspapers, including The Washington Post and Lebanon's Daily Star, have called for dismissing the charges against him.

Esra'a al-Shafei, a blogger in Bahrain, even set up a Web site -- www.freekareem.org -- to draw attention to the case, though she took pains to distance herself from Amer's message.

"I was offended by some of Kareem's blog writings. But I cannot support his imprisonment merely because he said a few things that insult my identity. Freedom of expression and open exchange of ideas must be respected," al-Shafei wrote in a news release posted on her site.

In Cairo, bloggers said the sentence left them both fearful and angry.

"We had prepared ourselves for this verdict, though the part about defaming the president is a bit weird," said Alaa Seif, 25, another anti-government blogger who attended Amer's trial in Alexandria. "It gave me a feeling of frustration. I feel I want to go defame the president on purpose."

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(El Naggar is a special correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers.)

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More information about the case is available online from Amnesty International and from Reporters Without Borders.

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