Egypt Court Nixes Sociologist's Sentence
By MAAMOUN YOUSSEF
CAIRO, Egypt (AP - 3 Dec) - Egypt's highest appeals court ordered a retrial for an Egyptian-American sociologist Tuesday, overturning his conviction for tarnishing the nation's image with his writings on democracy and human rights.
Human rights groups around the world had condemned Saad Eddin Ibrahim's conviction and seven-year sentence last year as politically motivated. The case also strained ties between Egypt and the United States.
The court did not explain its decision, which cannot be appealed further. Under Egyptian law, the court considers only procedural problems in deciding whether to order a retrial.
The appeals court said at least five of its seven judges will preside over the retrial starting Jan. 7. It will be Ibrahim's third trial on the same charges.
The court did not say whether the ailing Ibrahim - who was in prison Tuesday - would be freed pending his new trial. But his lawyer told The Associated Press that, under the law, Ibrahim should be released immediately.
Ibrahim, who turned 64 on Tuesday and is in poor health, was convicted May 21, 2001, and sentenced to seven years for tarnishing Egypt's image, accepting foreign money without government approval and embezzling funds.
He was granted a retrial after an earlier appeal. The second trial ended July 29 with a conviction and the same seven-year sentence. He appealed again.
Onlookers in the small courtroom in downtown Cairo clapped and exchanged kisses when the ruling was read. Ibrahim's wife, Barbara, raised both arms in a gesture of relief and said several times, ``I can't believe it.''
``It's a wonderful day for me, for my husband, for Egyptians and justice in this country,'' she said, adding that she expected the retrial by Court of Cassation judges to end in acquittal.
The courtroom observers included representatives of several embassies and international human rights groups.
David Danzig, spokesman for the New York-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, said the Ibrahim case was ``about larger issues: The future of democracy in Egypt, it's about the ability of Egyptians to be able to speak their minds without fear of being thrown in jail for what they say.''
The Egyptian government denies charges it violates its citizens' human rights.
C. David Welch, the U.S. ambassador to Egypt, issued a statement welcoming the retrial order.
Ibrahim founded and directed the Cairo-based Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, which campaigned for political and economic reform in the Arab world.
He first was arrested with 27 others, mostly center staff, in July 2000 after announcing they would monitor Egypt's 2000 parliamentary elections. The center's report on the previous elections, in 1995, claimed voting was rigged.
Following Ibrahim's second conviction, President Bush said the United States, in protest, would oppose aid to Egypt beyond the $2 billion it receives from Washington each year.
Egypt responded that Ibrahim's conviction was a judicial, not a political, matter and it would not accept any attempt to interfere in its internal affairs.
In the most recent appeal, Ibrahim's lawyers argued their defense had not been thoroughly considered by the trial judges.
Among other things, defense lawyers said, the trial court ignored evidence presented by Awad El-Mor, former leading judge of the Supreme Court, who appeared in Ibrahim's defense to challenge the constitutionality of a 1992 military decree barring Egyptians from accepting foreign money without government permission.
The appeal also noted that Khaled Fayad, one of the main defendants, testified during the retrial that he was pressured by security police to falsely accuse Ibrahim of embezzling funds received from the European Union.
Ibrahim lawyers also noted that the EU said in an affidavit it did not believe its grants, which totaled about $250,000, were misused.
Witnesses - including prominent intellectuals, a former general in the Egyptian army and a lawmaker from Egypt's ruling party - were introduced during the second trial to try to establish the defense's contention that Ibrahim was being prosecuted for opinions that many Egyptians expressed and some harsher government critics had not been punished.
The State Security Court that handed down the July conviction said Ibrahim ``intentionally propagated false statements and biased rumors concerning some internal affairs in the country that could weaken the standing of the state.''
The court said he falsely claimed that Egypt persecutes its Christian Coptic minority and mistreats human rights groups.
Ibrahim has been jailed since the July conviction and spent eight months in prison after the first conviction.
Ibrahim now walks with a cane after breaking his right leg in prison earlier this year. He suffers from a neurological disorder that prevents sufficient oxygen from reaching deeper recesses of the brain.
His family fears he has suffered several strokes since being sent to prison.
The sociology professor at the American University in Cairo holds both U.S. and Egyptian citizenship. His wife is a native of Palatine, Ill.
On the Net:
Ibrahim's Web site: http://www.democracy-egypt.org
Egyptian government statements on the case: http://www.sis.gov.eg/online/html7/o260822d.htm