HRW: Egypt army sets new limits on free speech

Blogger charged with three years in prison for defaming Egyptian military, Syria keeps medics from treating protesters, Human Rights Watch says.

Egyptian honor guard in Cairo 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Amel Pain/Pool)
Egyptian honor guard in Cairo 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amel Pain/Pool)
CAIRO - A three-year prison sentence handed to a blogger who criticised Egypt's army suggests the country's military rulers are drawing red lines around permissible speech, Human Rights Watch said.
The military council ruling Egypt said 25-year-old activist Maikel Nabil had used "inappropriate language" and defamed the military, and that his call that military conscription be scrapped would have a negative effect on young Egyptians.
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Army officers arrested Nabil on March 28 at his home in Cairo and the military prosecutor charged him with insulting the military establishment and "spreading false information", said New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Nabil's lawyers were told the judge would rule on April 12 but they discovered on April 11 that he had already been sentenced a day earlier in their absence, HRW cited defence lawyer Adel Ramadan as saying.
"Maikel Nabil's three-year sentence may be the worst strike against free expression in Egypt since the Mubarak government jailed the first blogger for four years in 2007," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.
The sentence will only be final once ratified by the chief of the military district, said HRW, calling on the army to drop all charges against Nabil and release him immediately.
HRW said it had seen a letter sent to Egyptian newspaper publishers from the ruling military council which said any news, pictures or press releases concerning the armed forces must be vetted first by its Morale Affairs directorate and military intelligence in order to protect national security.
"State institutions, including the military, should never consider themselves above criticism," said HRW's deputy Middle East director Joe Stork. "It is only through a public airing of abuses and full accountability measures that Egypt can hope to transition away from past human rights violations."
"Syria meets demands for reform with bullets"
HRW also said that Syrian security forces prevented medics from reaching protesters after clashes in anti-government demonstrations.
Access to medical treatment was blocked in Daraa.
"Barring people from needed medical care causes grave suffering and perhaps irreparable harm," Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW's Middle East director said. "To deprive woundded people of critical and perhaps life-saving medical treatment is both inhumane and illegal."
HRW interviewed doctors and injured protesters and their relatives in Daraa, Harasta and Douma.
A total of 28 protesters were killed on Friday, according to HRW.
"Syria's leaders talk about political reform, but they meet their people's legitimate demands for reform with bullets," Whitson said.