Verdict raises concerns about Egypt's civil liberties

On Monday, a prominent Egyptian democracy activist was sentenced to prison.

Most Egyptians were used to seeing prominent sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim speaking on academic panels, commenting from behind a cluttered desk, or lecturing to classes of university students. So it seemed incongruous to see him peering out from the metal defendants cage of an Egyptian state security court.

In a trial accused of violating international justice standards, the outspoken democracy activist was sentenced on Tuesday to seven years in prison for defaming Egypt, illegally accepting foreign money, and embezzling donated funds.

The six-month trial is seen as part of a government effort to crack down on civil liberties. After the verdict, political analysts, diplomats, and rights activists expressed concern that it would chill democracy and human rights here.

"It will generate a wave of fear among some of the finest intellectuals, lecturers, and activists in the country," says Mohamed El Sayed Said, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "It's so brutal. I really don't understand it."

Mr. Ibrahim, who holds joint Egyptian and US citizenship, was arrested June 28 and held without charges for 42 days. At the sentencing Monday, he and 27 other defendants - many of whom were researchers at his democracy think tank - were sentenced to one to seven years in prison.

A sociology professor at the American University in Cairo for 25 years, Ibrahim was director of the Ibn Khaldun Center. He consulted for international organizations, including the United Nations and the World Bank, and even served as an Egyptian government adviser. Prominent in American and Arab academic circles, he also wrote or edited 30 books in English and Arabic.

Ibrahim was found guilty of illegally receiving funds to monitor parliamentary elections, and defaming Egypt in reports on relations between the country's Coptic Christian minority and its Muslims.

Analysts say the government may have wanted to prevent the Ibn Khaldun Center from monitoring last November's parliamentary elections. Others believe the arrest was precipitated by an article Ibrahim wrote in the Saudi magazine Al Majala about Arab leaders' grooming their sons for succession, mentioning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as one of those leaders.

Following the verdict, Ibrahim sounded undeterred. "The fight goes on for justice, democracy, and human rights," he told the Associated Press. "I have no regrets. I'm paying a price for what I believed and stood for."

Human rights advocates questioned the speed of the verdict.

"We fear that the decision to convict had already been made prior to the conclusion of the trial," said Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint statement.

"From the beginning, this was a political trial," says rights activist Gasser Abdel Razek. "It has nothing to do with the legal charges. It has to do with the dissatisfaction among an influential wing of the ruling party that doesn't like Saad Eddin Ibrahim's work or doesn't like him personally."

Others applauded the verdict against him. "Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim was implementing an American plan with Israel that wants to divide the Egyptian society between the Christians and the Muslims, to revive the country's sectarian flames," says Mustafa Bakri, editor of the Independent weekly Al-Osboaa.

Analysts fear that Ibrahim's sentence will threaten Egypt-US relations, since Ibrahim is an American citizen.

"We're still gathering all the facts about the court's decision," says US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher. "Based on these initial reports, though, we're deeply troubled about the outcome."

Strategically, the verdict comes at a bad time, analysts say, because Egypt needs American support in promoting the Middle East peace process and in coming to the aid of the Palestinians.

"At this juncture Egypt needs to rally the greatest support possible to isolate [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon," says prominent Egyptian commentator Mohamed Sid Ahmed. "[This verdict] is only a way to antagonize the United States at a time when Egypt needs its backing."

Ibrahim's lawyers have said they would appeal.

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