By NADIA ABOU EL-MAGD
The Associated Press
Thursday, February 22, 2007; 2:40 PM
ALEXANDRIA, Egypt -- An Egyptian blogger was convicted Thursday and sentenced to four years in prison for insulting Islam and Egypt's president, sending a chill through fellow Internet writers who fear a government crackdown.
Abdel Kareem Nabil, a 22-year-old former student at Egypt's Al-Azhar University, had been a vocal secularist and sharp critic of conservative Muslims in his blog. He often lashed out at Al-Azhar -- the most prominent religious center in Sunni Islam -- calling it "the university of terrorism" and accusing it of encouraging extremism.
Nabil's lawyer, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, said he would appeal the verdict, adding it will "terrify other bloggers and have a negative impact on freedom of expression in Egypt." Nabil had faced a possible maximum sentence of nine years in prison.
His conviction brought a flood of condemnations from international and Egyptian human rights groups, as well as fellow government critics on the Internet.
"I am shocked," said Wael Abbas, a blogger who writes frequently about police abuses and other human rights violations in Egypt. "This is a terrible message to anyone who intends to express his opinion and to bloggers in particular."
The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based media rights group, said Internet writers and editors are the fastest growing segment of imprisoned journalists, with 49 behind bars as of December.
"With this verdict, Egypt has opened up a new front in its efforts to stifle media freedoms," said Joel Campagna, the group's senior Middle East program coordinator.
In Washington, Deputy State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he had no specific comment on Nabil's case, adding the U.S. is always concerned when freedom of expression is infringed.
Judge Ayman al-Akazi sentenced Nabil to three years in prison for insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad and inciting sectarian strife and another year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak.
Nabil, sitting in the defendant's pen, did not react as the verdict was read and made no comments as he was led to a prison truck outside. Seconds after the door was closed, an Associated Press reporter heard a slap from inside the truck and a scream.
Egypt, a top U.S. ally in the Mideast, arrested a number of bloggers last year, most of them for connections to the pro-democracy reform movement. Nabil was put on trial while other bloggers were freed -- a sign of the sensitivity of his writings on religion.
Nabil, who used the blogger name Kareem Amer, was an unusually scathing critic of conservative Muslims. His frequent attacks on Al-Azhar, where he was a law student, led the university to expel him in March, then push prosecutors to bring him to trial.
The judge said Nabil insulted the Prophet Muhammad with a piece he wrote in 2005 after riots in which angry Muslim worshippers attacked a Coptic Christian church over a play deemed offensive to Islam.
"Muslims revealed their true ugly face and appeared to all the world that they are full of brutality, barbarism and inhumanity," Nabil wrote in his blog. He called Muhammad and his 7th century followers, the Sahaba, "spillers of blood" for their teachings on warfare -- a comment cited by the judge.
In a later essay not cited by the court, Nabil clarified his comments, saying Muhammad was "great" but that his teachings on warfare and other issues should be viewed as a product of their times.
In other writings, he called Al-Azhar the "other face of the coin of al-Qaida" and called for the university to be dissolved or turned into a secular institution. He also criticized Mubarak, calling him "the symbol of tyranny."
Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a pro-reform blogger who was detained for six weeks last year, said Nabil's conviction will "have a chilling effect on the rest of the bloggers."
"We (the Egyptian people) are enduring oppression, poverty and torture, so the least we can do is insult the president," he said.
Associated Press Writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report in Cairo.
On the Net:
Nabil's blog, in Arabic: http://karam903.blogspot.com/