Freedom for Issa but not yet for Egypt

Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak has pardoned Ibrahim Issa, the outspoken editor of the independent daily Al-Dustour who was sentenced to prison for publishing a series of articles that questioned the health of the 81-year old Mubarak. MENASSAT spoke with Issa's wife who was as surprised as he was by the news.
Ibrahim Issa was sentenced to two months in prison on September 28. © AP

BEIRUT, October 7, 2008 (MENASSAT) – According to Egypt's state-run news agency MENA, president Hosni Mubarak's pardon of Ibrahim Issa is part of an effort to "foster press freedom in Egypt."

The news came as a surprise to Issa's wife, Amira Abdel-Fattah.

"We didn't expect a presidential pardon. Such pardons are very rare in political cases," Abdel-Fattah told MENASSAT over the phone from Cairo.

The pardon came on Armed Forces Day, an Egyptian national holiday that remembers the start of the 1973 war with Israel. It is traditionally the day when presidential pardons are announced.

Issa, a veteran journalist and one of Egypt's most outspoken critics of the Mubarak regime, was convicted in March 2008 of  "publishing false information of a nature to disturb public order or security."

In his articles, he cast doubt on the health of 81-year-old Mubarak, raising the question whether the president was in fact human because, after all, "Gods don't get sick."

"The state wants to present the president as a sacred person who never does anything wrong and with whom nobody can compete," Issa wrote in his article.

The prosecution claimed that Issa's articles harmed Egypt's economy after foreign investors allegedly pulled out investments worth more than $350 million from the Egyptian stock exchange.

Issa's first trial in March was supposed to have been held before a state security court where he would have had no right of appeal. But pressure brought by the Egyptian journalists' union helped transfer the case to an ordinary civil court.

Issa was subsequently sentenced to six months in prison and a fine of LE 200 or $36 against which he appealed.

On September 28, Issa's appeal was rejected and the editor was sentenced to two months in prison.

Issa's case has attracted wide-spread attention from both local and international media. Rights groups have continuously rallied for the Egyptian authorities to acquit the editor, claiming the case had weak legal grounds. 

While Abdel-Fattah believes that local and international pressure have played a role in Mubarak granting her husband a pardon, she suspects the recent developments were planned ahead of time.

"I think the scenario was planned well beforehand in order to make the government look good and for them to be able to say that, yes, there is press freedom in Egypt, and to uphold the recent presidential promise of not sending journalists to prison," she said. 

The couple welcomes the pardon but Abdel-Fattah emphasized that stronger measures will be needed in order to boost freedom of expression in her country.

"A presidential pardon is not the solution here. Press freedom is still under threat in Egypt. A comprehensive solution must be undertaken. Press laws that threaten journalists must be amended," said Abdel-Fattah.

A free man once again, Issa is nevertheless still tangled up in legal troubles. He is facing an additional lawsuit, along with three other Egyptian editors, for defaming the president and his aides. The case is due to be heard in an Egyptian court on Saturday.

At least seven journalists were sentenced in September 2007 to up to two years in prison on charges ranging from misquoting the justice minister to spreading rumors about the president.