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Cablegate: Court Fines Journalists for Insulting Al-Azhar

VZCZCXYZ0001
RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHEG #2198 2891605
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 151605Z OCT 08
FM AMEMBASSY CAIRO
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 0650
INFO RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L CAIRO 002198

SIPDIS

NEA/ELA FOR CANEDO; DRL/NESCA FOR BERGLUND
NSC FOR PASCUAL

E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/15/2028
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KDEM EG
SUBJECT: COURT FINES JOURNALISTS FOR INSULTING AL-AZHAR
SHEIKH

REF: A. CAIRO 2152 B. CAIRO 2122 Classified By: ECPO Mincouns William R. Stewart for reason 1.4 (d).
1.(U) On October 11, Cairo Criminal Court fined the editor-in-chief of the independent, sensationalist newspaper "Al-Fagr," Adel Hamouda, and a reporter for the paper, Mohammed Al-Baz, 80,000 Egyptian pounds each (approximately 15,000 USD) for publishing images of the Sheikh of Al-Azhar dressed in papal robes and wearing a cross, alongside a September 2008 article urging the Sheikh not to visit the Vatican. Sheikh Tantawi had filed suit against the journalists, requesting their arrest and incarceration for "deliberately insulting" the institution of Al-Azhar. Sheikh Tantawi reportedly refused a proposed deal brokered by Journalists' Syndicate Chairman Makram Mohammed Ahmed whereby the sheikh would drop the lawsuit in exchange for "Al-Fagr" publishing a formal apology.

2.(C) Secretary-General of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights Hafez Abu Seada told us October 13 that the defense lawyers were pleased the court did not sentence the journalists to prison terms, although the lawyers believe the court should have issued an acquittal. Abu Seada opined that the court ruling was an attempt to find "middle ground" between the Sheikh's insistence on punishment and the press' opposition to the case. Abu Seada personally echoed the defense lawyers' relief that there was no prison sentence, but commented that he thought the 80,000 pound fine was high. Asking rhetorically, "Did the article and photo really harm the Sheikh?" Abu Seada asserted that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar had no business bringing a lawsuit against journalists, and criticized Tantawi for his insistence on filing the suit.

3.(C) Negad Al-Borai of "The United Group" human rights NGO commented to us October 13 that the court ruling's inappropriate deference to the Sheikh of Al-Azhar in a case without any legal merit illustrates the lack of judicial independence in Egypt. Al-Borai lamented what he called "excessively high fines" on the journalists. Other human rights NGOs complained publicly in the media and privately to us that the court ruling limited press freedom. The pro-government newspaper "Al-Gomhoriya" reported October 13 that the Sheikh of Al-Azhar had no comment on the ruling and has accepted the court-imposed fines on the journalists.

4.(C) Comment: Egyptian journalists have long pressed for legislation that would ban incarceration as a criminal penalty for press "crimes." Despite President Mubarak's February 2004 pledge not to jail journalists, the government has thus far refused to change existing law. By imposing fines in a case such as this, the government may be trying to find a way it can deliver a political and financial message to independent journalists who cross a GOE red-line, while avoiding the controversial fallout of a prison sentence. SCOBEY

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