Four Egyptian newspaper editors convicted of publishing offences under a controversial press law have had their one-year prison sentences overturned by a Cairo Appeals Court.
In the ruling made on Sunday, the Agouza Appeals Court also upheld the 20,000 Egyptian Pounds (around US$3500) fine against each of the editors. Their lawyers announced that they will take the case to the Court of Cassation.
"We are relieved that the four editors’ prison sentences have been overturned, but the imposition of heavy fines and the prospect of trials on vaguely-worded charges constitute unacceptable obstacles to freedom of the press in Egypt," said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.
All four were tried by the Agouza First Instances Court on 13 September 2007. They received the maximum sentence stipulated under the Egyptian Penal Code for anyone who "malevolently publishes false news, statements or rumours that is likely to disturb public order."
In July 2006, the Egyptian parliament further curtailed freedom of speech by passing a law that made offences such as insulting public officials punishable by custodial sentences.
Independent and opposition newspapers withheld publication for a day in protest at the new law and hundreds of media workers protested outside the Egyptian parliament.
The four editors sentenced were Ibrahim Eissa of the daily Al-Dustour, Wael al-Abrashy of the weekly Sawt al-Umma, Adel Hammouda of the weekly Al-Fajr and Abdel Halim Qandil, former editor of the weekly Al-Karama. The four remained free pending their appeal.
Ibrahim Eissa received a six-month prison sentence for spreading false rumours about the health of President Mubarak reduced to two months by an appeals court in September 2008. He later received a presidential pardon in October 2008.
Editors of the independent daily Al-Masry al-Youm, Magdy Al-Gallad, and opposition newspaper, Al-Wafd, Abbas Al-Tarabily, as well as three journalists working for them, are also being tried..
They are charged with breaking the court-ordered ban on publishing details regarding the hearings in the trial of a prominent Egyptian businessman and a former member of the State Security Investigations services accused of the killing of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tameem. The trial will resume on 12 February 2009.
"We call on the Egyptian authorities to stop using the press law to muzzle freedom of speech and to recognize the important role of a free and independent press in any society," said Malcolm Smart.