CAIRO, (AP) – Four independent Egyptian editors convicted of defaming the president and his close associates have had their yearlong prison sentences overturned by an appeals court, state newspapers reported Sunday.
The Cairo appeals court, however, maintained their fines of 20,000 Egyptian pounds, or about $3,600, prompting the defendants to seek further appeals.
Amnesty International welcomed the ruling but lamented Egypt’s prosecution of journalists for their writings, describing it as part of a government campaign to stifle criticism.
“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,” the rights group said in a statement issued late Saturday after the ruling.
A lower court in Cairo in September 2007 sentenced the editors — all running a new generation of brash, tabloid-style newspapers — to a year in prison for criticizing President Hosni Mubarak, his son and high-level ministers.
The sentences were in response to libel suits brought by people with connections to the ruling party.
Those sentenced were Wael El-Ibrashi of the weekly Sawt Al-Umma; Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the daily Al-Dustour; Adel Hammouda, editor of Al-Fagr weekly; and Abdel Halim Qandil of the weekly Al-Karama. The four remained free pending their appeal.
In July 2006, the parliament passed a new press law that makes insulting public officials an offense punishable by prison time. Egyptian journalists say the law curtails freedom of expression.
In a separate case, Eissa was sentenced in March to six months in prison for reporting on rumors about the president’s health. The sentence was later reduced to two months, and in October he was pardoned by the president.
Rights activists have complained about a pattern of overturning and reducing heavy sentences in libel cases while the harsh laws are left in place.