Lawyers for jailed blogger seek pardon from Egypt's military rulers

Lawyers representing an Egyptian blogger sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the army say they want Egypt's military rulers to grant a pardon for Maikel Nabil Sanad, 25.

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CAIRO // Lawyers representing a blogger sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the army say they will file a request today for an executive pardon from Egypt's military rulers.

The case of Maikel Nabil Sanad, 25, who was sentenced Sunday by a military court, has drawn widespread national and international attention as one of the first major tests of free speech since Hosni Mubarak, the former president, left office two months ago.

The court found Sanad guilty of "publishing false information" and "insulting the military" for a blog posting attributed to him that accused the military of directing violence against political protesters.

"We hope that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will accept this pardon request from a man who is so young that such an imprisonment would ruin his future," said Maged Hanna, one of four lawyers representing Sanad.

"This is a cruel verdict, and we will present a pardon request in part because [the verdict] threatens the freedom to have an opinion."

A military spokesman, Gen Ismail Etman, defended the verdict in a television appearance on Monday night, saying the trial was conducted fairly, that Mr Sanad had defamed the military, and that the posting, if left unpunished, would harm the youth of Egypt.

It is a crime under Egyptian law to criticise the armed forces, and before Mr Mubarak's resignation journalists needed official permission to publish any article about the military, however mundane.

Newspapers and bloggers have generally been less guarded in the last two months, but critics warn that Sanad's case could have a chilling effect on press freedom.

Human Rights Watch, the New York-based group, drew attention to the case on Monday in a statement, calling it a "serious setback to freedom of expression in post-Mubarak Egypt".

The 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 the group's deputy Middle East director, Joe Stork.

Sanad has denied writing the post, which appeared on his blog.

The posting detailed dozens of examples — sourced from media reports, the testimonies of individuals, and the writer's personal experience — that portray a military intent on suppressing protests with violence, torture and illegal detentions since in took power.

The reports, the author writes, show that "the army did not stand by the people's side, not even once during this revolution and that the army's conduct was deceptive all the time and that it was protecting its own interests".

In court proceedings army prosecutors appeared incensed in particular by two parts of the March 7 posting: one suggesting that army officers had provided weapons to police who attacked protesters and another that accused officers of sexually assaulting female detainees with "virginity tests", said Mark Nabil Sanad, Maikel's brother who attended the trial.

Under military court rules, Mark Nabil Sanad, 18, was the only member of his family permitted to attend the proceedings last week. But Maikel was abruptly sentenced on Sunday after Mark and the lawyers had already left court on the assumption that the trial would resume two days later, Mark Nabil Sanad said. "The issue was between Maikel and the military, so how come the military's court tried Maikel?" he asked. "If you have an issue between two people, a third party should … judge - we reject the idea of military trials for civilians."

Maikel, a pacifist and political activist, has come in conflict with the authorities before. Last November 10 he was arrested for refusing to report for military service. He was released two days later after obtaining a certificate releasing him from service, his brother said.

Maikel was arrested on one other occasion by the army, and at least four times by police for protesting, Mark Nabil Sanad added. He has also drawn scrutiny for his vocal support for Israel's right to exist, though he has rejected many aspects of Israeli government policy. Mark Nabil Sanad said that Maikel's opinions on Israel played no part in the trial.

The case has raised troubling questions about whether the military will allow criticism of its policies now that it has become fully enmeshed in politics, said Mr Hanna, Sanad's lawyer, who emphasised he was speaking in general terms, and not about his client specifically.