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Interview: Hisham Kassem Discusses the Egyptian Laws Used to Sentence American Saad Eddin Ibrahim

All Things Considered: July 29, 2002

Activist Sentenced



SUSAN STAMBERG, host:

In Cairo today, an Egyptian-American academic was sentenced to seven years in prison, convicted for the second time of tarnishing the image of Egypt and other charges. The verdict has been criticized by the US and Amnesty International. Saad Eddin Ibrahim taught sociology at the American University in Cairo. Last year, he was convicted of embezzlement, receiving unauthorized foreign funds and tarnishing the image of Egypt. Hisham Kassem joins us. He is publisher of the Cairo Times, also head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.

Mr. Kassem, what is meant by `tarnishing Egypt's image'?

Mr. HISHAM KASSEM (The Cairo Times): It's a very loosely worded law, which practically apply to 50 percent of what's written in the press every day here in Egypt. It's one of those laws that you leave on the shelf, and then whenever you need to use it against a political dissident or an independent-minded person like Saad Eddin Ibrahim, it becomes convenient.

STAMBERG: Mr. Ibrahim is known as an outspoken advocate of human rights and democracy. He ran a think tank there in Egypt, and got a $1/4 million in grants from the European Union to be monitoring legislative elections there. He apparently cast some doubt on the credibility of elections in Egypt. Is that at the heart of what's happening to him?

Mr. KASSEM: It's difficult to tell. There were three charges. One was violation of a military degree from 1992. The other was again tarnishing the image of Egypt, which I explained earlier, and then the misappropriation of funds from the EU in spite of an affidavit signed in Brussels stating that after an audit had been done, the EU is completely satisfied with its dealings with Saad Eddin Ibrahim.

STAMBERG: There are human rights groups which have suggested that these trials are really designed to limit political debate in Egypt. Do you agree with that?

Mr. KASSEM: It definitely has that effect. I mean, it's had a chilling effect. Today's sentence on Saad Eddin Ibrahim is almost like a death certificate for human rights organizations and civil libertarians in this country.

STAMBERG: Give some specific examples, can you?

Mr. KASSEM: The three charges that he's been charged with can just be brought brought up against any rights organization or anybody involved in civil liberties, and ending up for a sentence of seven years in jail. That was never part of the agreement with the government. We were initially told in the early '90s when they began to apply the military law heavily that it would be used only against drug dealers and terrorists.

STAMBERG: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KASSEM: Now it's being used against civil libertarians. A lot of people are just backing out. Not so many people are willing to give up seven years of their life behind bars.

STAMBERG: And I understand he's already served eight months in prison, but that the prior sentence was tossed out because there were some procedural problems.

Mr. KASSEM: Yes, that's right. A retrial was ordered within 30 days. The judge has to give the substantiation for his ruling, and then his lawyers will appeal again, this time to go to the causation court(ph), where they will not be looking into due process but whether he should be convicted or acquitted once and for all.

STAMBERG: And his health is poor, I understand. He's 63 years old, he has a disorder that affects the flow of oxygen to his brain. His wife is extremely concerned about his health.

Mr. KASSEM: That's true. He's suffering from a neurological disorder. And in addition to being a fairly fragile 63-year-old man, and I think the second ruling of--today's ruling is going to have a serious impact on him psychologically and physically.

STAMBERG: Thank you very much.

Mr. KASSEM: My pleasure.

STAMBERG: Hisham Kassem, publisher of the Cairo Times.

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