Amnesty International criticized Egypt’s use of a defamation law to pursue three activists for slander and blackmail after they allegedly accused a judge of plagiarism.
“We fear that these latest charges are a further attempt to intimidate independent human rights organizations, which are already subject to severe restrictions, including state-security vetted registration and tight government rules on foreign funding,” the London-based rights group said on Wednesday.
The trial of two human rights advocates and a blogger for allegedly defaming Judge Abdel Fattah Murad opened in Cairo on Saturday but was immediately adjourned at the defendants’ request, a judicial official said.
If convicted, the trio could face imprisonment.
Gamel Eid, head of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), said he and the other two defendants had pleaded not guilty to charges of defamation, blackmail and misuse of the Internet.
The other defendants are Ahmad Saif al-Islam, founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, and blogger Amr Gharbeia, who is now an Amnesty staffer.
Eid and Saif al-Islam are among Egypt’s top human rights lawyers.
In February 2007, the two published an online statement alleging that Murad had plagiarized entire sections of an ANHRI report and reproduced them without citation in his book.
Shortly thereafter, Murad lodged a complaint against them for blackmail.
Egypt’s Internet police launched an investigation and found that Gharbeia had also posted the statement online, allegedly together with defamatory comments about the judge.
On Friday, US-based Human Rights Watch criticized the case as “the latest in a series of attempts … to silence human rights organizations.
“All eyes are on Egypt as it enters a critical election period,” HRW said in reference to a presidential poll due next year.
“The government’s performance so far this year bodes ill for human rights in the year ahead.”
Amnesty said “the right to freedom of expression involves the right to freely criticize public officials, public officers, public personalities and authorities. This ability is fundamental for civil society to hold the authorities to account. Egyptian officials should respond on the merits of the criticisms raised rather than try to silence them.”