Egypt's military prosecution questions journalists

AP News
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Posted: May 20, 2011 2:00 PM
Egypt's military prosecution questions journalists

Military prosecutors summoned and then released the editor and two journalists of an independent newspaper for reporting on an alleged deal to offer amnesty to ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

The three were released after they signed a pledge agreeing not to report on issues involving the armed forces that might cause "confusion" in the streets, Egypt's state news agency and a rights activist said Friday.

The three were questioned about a report El-Shorouk newspaper ran earlier this week saying Mubarak planned to release an audio appeal for amnesty in exchange for relinquishing all his holdings, a move aimed at avoiding trial. It cited unidentified Egyptian and Arab officials, as well as an unnamed military official who said a mediation deal was under way.

The report sparked a wave of criticism and calls for mass rallies to demand justice. The anger prompted a quick denial from the military rulers.

The three were summoned by military prosecutors Thursday and asked to sign a pledge that they would not report on news regarding the armed forces "which may cause confusion in the streets, without clearance from the armed forces," the state news agency said.

Editor Amr Khafagi downplayed the summons, saying it was just a reminder that journalists must abide by an article in the penal code that requires any statement about or from a military official to be cleared in advance by the army's media affairs department. There were no accusations against the three and no interrogation, he said.

The paper published a column Thursday saying it had no intention of "polarizing" society, but never denied the amnesty report. It said it would stop publishing reports about the issue until the "mood allows for a free discussion of the issue."

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer, said requiring the journalists to sign a pledge was a violation of freedom of expression and was meant to censure any criticism of the Supreme Armed Forces Council, who are now running the country after Mubarak stepped down on Feb. 11 in the face of an 18-day popular uprising.

Eid said the military prosecution had no business interrogating the journalists, who violated no professional codes.

"We are against the fact that the military council is creating red lines," he said, adding that the move amounted to a scare tactic. "The real danger is when journalists stop writing and obey these orders."

The 82-year-old Mubarak has been held in custody in a hospital over allegations of killings of protesters and corruption. His 70-year-old wife, Suzanne, was released this week after she relinquished assets and property valued at some $4 million, a move aimed at settling corruption allegations against her, though it was unclear whether she might still face trial.

Bringing Mubarak to trial has become a rallying point for protesters, who turned out in Tahrir Square by the hundreds Friday to express their frustration at the failure by the military council to bring about real democratic change.

"I feel depressed," said 31-year-old Mohamed Gamel. "I was expecting more than this."

Protesters milled about, weaving past vendors selling orange juice and candy apples. Some chanted "27! 27!" in anticipation of a larger demonstration planned for May 27 under the banner, "I have not felt the change, I am going back to Tahrir." Others waved Egyptian flags and hand-lettered signs. One protester's sign read "Hosni is free. Suzanne is free. This is a problem."

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Associated Press Writer Leah Finnegan in Cairo contributed to this report.