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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Egyptian Blogger, Accused of Sectarian Strife and Insulting Islam,

By NADIA ABOU EL-MAGD
Associated Press Writer

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) -- An Egyptian blogger went on trial Thursday on charges of insulting Islam and causing sectarian strife with his Internet writings. Egypt's first prosecution of a blogger came as Washington has backed away from pressuring its Mideast ally to improve its human rights record and bring democratic reform.

Abdel Kareem Nabil often denounced Islamic authorities and criticized Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on his Arabic-language blog. He has been in detention since November and faces up to nine years in prison if convicted.

Egypt has arrested a string of pro-democracy bloggers over the past year, sparking condemnation from human rights groups.

Nabil's trial in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria began two days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Mubarak, seeking support for a new American strategy on calming violence in Iraq.

But unlike past visits to Egypt when she pressed demands for greater democracy, Rice made no reference to reform, instead praising the two countries' "important strategic relationship -- one that we value greatly."

In 2005, the Bush administration made Egypt -- which Mubarak has ruled unquestioned for a quarter century -- the centerpiece of what it called a policy priority of promoting democratic change in the Arab world.

But Egyptian reformists say Washington has all but dropped its pressure on Mubarak amid the Bush administration's need for support on Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The United States was also spooked when Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood made big gains in 2005 parliamentary elections and the radical Hamas movement won 2006 Palestinian elections -- raising fears that greater democracy would increase fundamentalists' power, activists say.

"America's stance is very clear. It is so afraid after the victories of Hamas in Palestine and the Brotherhood in Egypt," said Ahmed Seif al-Islam, a member of one of three Egyptian rights group backing Nabil in his case.

The United States "has not only lifted its hand and stopped pressure. We are in the phase of (the U.S.) hinting to government they can take repressive measures for the sake of stability," he said.

In Thursday's court session, Nabil was charged with inciting sedition, insulting Islam, harming national unity and insulting the president, a court official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of court rules.

Defense attorneys asked for time to review the indictment and the trial was adjourned until Jan. 25.

His lawyer, Radwa Sayed Ahmed, said Nabil had been held in solitary confinement, forbidden visits from his family and lawyers. In court Thursday, "he didn't look good," she told the Associated Press from Alexandria.

Nabil is the first blogger Egypt has put on trial for his writings. Other bloggers have been released without charges. But unlike the other detained bloggers, who concentrated on politics, Nabil wrote often on religion -- and Seif al-Islam said the government was likely prosecuting him as part of its "competition with the Muslim Brotherhood to show its Islamic credentials."

In his blog -- where he uses the name Kareem Amer -- Nabil was a fierce critic of conservative Muslims and in particularly of al-Azhar, one of the most prestigious religious institutions in the Sunni Muslim world.

Nabil was a law student at al-Azhar University, but denounced it as "the university of terrorism," accusing it of promoting radical ideas and suppressing free thought. Al-Azhar "stuffs its students' brains and turns them into human beasts ... teaching them that there is no place for differences in this life," he wrote.

He was thrown out of the university in March, and in his last blog entry before his arrest blamed al-Azhar for pushing the government to investigate him.

In other postings, Nabil described Mubarak's regime as a "symbol of dictatorship."

Nabil was briefly detained in late 2005 after posting a commentary on riots in which angry Muslim worshippers attacked a Coptic Christian church over a play put on by Christians deemed offensive to Islam.

"Muslims revealed their true ugly face and appeared to all the world that they are full of brutality, barbarism and inhumanity," Nabil said of the October 2005 riots.

Blogging took off in Egypt in 2004, at a time when domestic political activists and the U.S. were stepping up calls for political reform.

Last year, police arrested Alaa Abdel-Fattah, whose blog helped organize anti-government protests, and held him for six weeks before releasing him in June. Another blogger, Mohammed el-Sharkawi, was arrested during a demonstration in May and allegedly sexually tortured in detention before his release.

Amnesty International and media watchdog Reporters Without Borders have criticized the arrests as restricting freedom of expression. The Paris-based media watchdog has included Egypt in "Enemies of the Internet," a report issued in November.

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