In a stark reminder of the perils some face when using the Internet to express themselves, an Egyptian blogger has been sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of insulting Islam and the country’s president in his writings.
An Egyptian court on Thursday found that 22-year old Abdel Kareem Nabil had used his Web log postings to insult the Islamic religion, the Prophet Muhammad and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The former Al-Azhar University student had used the blogging name Kareem Amer in his posts, which often took aim at conservative Muslim traditions and the country’s education system.
Late last year, Nabil had been arrested along with other bloggers who were calling for a more open and democratic society in Egypt. Only Nabil was brought to trial, likely because his posts often went beyond criticism of the government to attack the foundations of Islam beliefs.
Judge Ayman al-Akazi sentenced Nabil to three years in prison for insulting Islam and its prophet, and for “inciting sectarian strife.” He was sentenced to another year for his blog-based attacks on President Mubarak.
Nabil’s blog, which was written in Arabic, remains accessible on the Google-owned Blogger network and is, ironically, surrounded by ads for organizations that fight censorship in other Muslim countries.
Nabil’s profile is written in English, and in it he describes himself as a down-to-earth law student.
“I am looking forward to open up my own human rights activists law firm, which will include other lawyers who share the same views,” he wrote. “Our main goal is to defend the rights of Muslim and Arabic women against all form of discrimination and to stop violent crimes committed on a daily basis in these countries.”
Washington, D.C.-based human rights group Amnesty International quickly condemned the ruling and called for Nabil’s “immediate and unconditional release.”
The group’s regional director, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, said the laws used to convict the blogger are themselves a “violation of international standards.”
The law, he added, “stipulates prison sentences for acts which constitute nothing more than the peaceful exercise of the rights of freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion.”
Nabil’s online postings started with attacks on Al-Azhar University in Alexandria, where he attended law school. He accused the university of fostering the type of extremism that begets terrorism. His writing later went on to condemn other institutions, including the nation’s president and the more conservative factions of the Islamic faith.
The charges he faced included “spreading information disruptive of public order and damaging to the country’s reputation,” and “incitement to hate Islam.”
Dalia Ziada, a spokesperson for the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said the conviction and sentence “sends a chilling message” to all bloggers in Islamic countries.
The press freedom group Reporters without Borders also was quick to condemn the ruling. The group had previously labeled Egypt one of the 13 “Internet enemies” for its actions against online free speech during 2006.
Other nations on the list include Cuba, China and other Middle Eastern countries such as Iran and Syria. The group noted that some countries in that region are making progress, with Libya removed from the enemies list after it stopped censoring Internet traffic.
Meanwhile, fellow bloggers in the U.S. and elsewhere were quick to comment on the development, with many saying that the freedom of expression allowed in such unedited Web postings offer hope that free speech will win out eventually.
The discussion sparked by Nabil’s jailing may help focus enough attention on the issue of speech limitations to cause changes, said blogger and computer technician Jeffrey Fina.
Blog author Kevin Hill, meanwhile, said the “blogosphere” remains “the best hope for freedom of speech worldwide. But there are still going to be a lot more Abdel Kareems getting persecuted before people in those countries get the same sort of freedoms we take for granted.”
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