Cablegate: Mubarak Commutes Sentence of Independent Editor

Published: Tue 7 Oct 2008 01:01 PM
DE RUEHEG #2152/01 2811316
O 071316Z OCT 08
C O N F I D E N T I A L CAIRO 002152
E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/07/2028
REF: A. CAIRO 2122 B. CAIRO 595 C. 07 CAIRO 2936 D. 07 CAIRO 2825 AND PREVIOUS Classified By: DCM Matthew Tueller for reason 1.4 (d).
1.(C) Summary and comment: On October 6, President Mubarak issued a presidential decree commuting the two-month prison sentence of independent newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa that an appeals court handed down September 28. One of Eissa's lawyers, Hafez Abu Seada, told us that the presidential decree took the legal team by surprise, and that the lawyers had been waiting for the public prosecutor's decision on whether Egypt's highest court of criminal appeals would hear the case before Eissa reported to jail. Contacts speculated that Mubarak decided to issue his decree after public opposition to the court's decision persisted despite the relatively light two-month term, and that the government's desire to pre-empt international criticism at the mid-October Forum for the Future also played a role. Criticism of the court's decision from institutions normally supportive of the regime, in addition to the expected opposition from independent sources, may have convinced Mubarak that the government had overstepped its domestic support and had created a political liability. Commuting the sentence could also be a GOE attempt to avoid creating another high-profile political prisoner in the mold of former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, and thereby attracting unwanted international criticism. End summary and comment.
2.(C) On October 6, a national holiday as Egypt's Armed Forces Day, President Mubarak issued a presidential decree pardoning independent "Al-Dostour" editor Ibrahim Eissa following a Cairo appeals court's September 28 conviction and sentencing of Eissa on charges of spreading false information about Mubarak's health (ref A). The official government news agency MENA reported October 6 that the decree, "confirms (Mubarak's) sponsorship of the freedom of opinion, expression and the press." One of Eissa's lawyers, Hafez Abu Seada of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, clarified for us October 7 that the presidential decree commutes Eissa's two-month sentence, but does not overturn the appeals court's upholding of the March 2008 conviction (ref B).
3.(C) Abu Seada told us that the presidential decree took Eissa's legal team by surprise, and that the lawyers were not in direct contact with the president's office regarding the case. Abu Seada said that as of October 6, Eissa's lawyers had been waiting for a decision by the public prosecutor (Egypt's attorney-general equivalent) on whether the Court of Cassation (Egypt's highest appeals court for criminal cases) would hear an appeal before Eissa reported to prison as ordered by the Cairo appeals court September 28. (Note: The appeals court had ordered Eissa to report to prison by September 30, but Eissa remained free pending the public prosecutor's decision through a deal brokered by the Journalists' Syndicate and the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights. End note.)
4.(C) Abu Seada speculated that Mubarak decided to commute Eissa's sentence following public criticism of the court decision from influential public figures. As an example, Abu Seada cited pro-government "Al-Ahram" newspaper columnist Salama Ahmed Salama whose October 5 article stressed the importance of a free press and took issue with the court's decision. Abu Seada also believed that the Journalists' Syndicate President Makram Mohammed Ahmad, who is close to the ruling National Democratic Party, played an important role in Mubarak's decision by first pressing for the Court of Cassation to hear an appeal and then publicly criticizing the sentencing. Ahmad called in to the popular television talk show "Cairo Today" September 29 and told the large public audience, "Imprisonment is a penalty rejected by all journalists...(which) has been eliminated from the developed world and most Arab countries...imprisonment is a backward physical punishment." Abu Seada also opined that Mubarak acted in advance of the mid-October Forum for the Future in Abu Dhabi to pre-empt embarrassing international criticism of Egypt for the court's decision. Abu Seada confirmed to us that an appeals court is scheduled to hear arguments October 11 in the separate case of four independent editors, including Eissa, who were convicted and sentenced in September 2007 (ref D) on charges of "maliciously publishing false news about the National Democratic Party."
5.(C) Independent newspaper "Al-Masry Al-Youm" founder Hisham Kassem told us October 7 he believed the two-month sentence constituted a GOE attempt to tamp down domestic and foreign criticism by ordering a relatively lenient prison term. In Kassem's view, persistent domestic opposition to the court's decision demonstrated that the government's strategy had failed, and Mubarak perhaps felt compelled to commute the sentence. Secretary-General of the quasi-governmental National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) Mokhles Kotb told us October 7 that the NCHR plans to issue a statement welcoming the presidential decree, stressing long-standing NCHR opposition to the imprisonment of journalists, and calling on cases involving journalists to be referred to the Journalists' Syndicate, not the criminal courts.
6.(C) Comment: Faced with pressure from sources close to the government such as Journalists' Syndicate President Ahmad, the National Council for Human Rights and the "Al-Ahram" newspaper, in addition to the expected criticism from independent NGOs and publications, Mubarak may have calculated that the court's sentencing of Eissa had become an unnecessary political liability. Mubarak also found himself in an uncomfortable position due to his previous public pledge that journalists would not be imprisoned for their writings. The government also probably hoped to avoid creating another cause celebre in the mold of Ayman Nour who would attract international criticism. Commuting the sentence, as opposed to directing the Court of Cassation to hear an appeal, is probably a GOE attempt to bring closure to the case and dampen the public's interest in continuing debate over its merits. By issuing the presidential decree on a patriotic national holiday, Mubarak is also trying to appear to the public as a magnanimous figure able to intercede to save a journalist from prison time, although the genesis of the original case against Eissa most likely began with at least tacit approval from the presidential palace. SCOBEY
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