CAIRO - An Egyptian court sentenced four outspoken newspaper editors to one year in prison with labor yesterday for defaming President Hosni Mubarak and his politician son, drawing swift condemnation from human rights groups.
The verdict escalates what analysts describe as a campaign by the ruling National Democratic Party against independent newspapers that have reported Mubarak was grooming his son Gamal to succeed him.
Both father and son deny that.
The court also ordered Ibrahim Issa, Adel Hammouda, Wael el-Ebrashi, and Abdel-Halim Qandil to pay fines of about $3,500 each. The court said they could stay free pending appeal on bail of $1,700 each.
"This is a death announcement for the freedom of press in Egypt," said Issa, editor of the al-Dustour daily.
Although the Egyptian press has enjoyed more freedom in the last two years, human rights groups say criticizing the 79-year-old president or his family is a risky venture.
Analysts say waning US pressure on Egypt to improve its rights record and allow more political dissent has emboldened the government to silence detractors.
Cairo says its judiciary is independent and not politically influenced.
Two NDP members filed the lawsuit in January against the editors, who are known for their attacks against Mubarak and Gamal, a leading ruling party official.
The four were also convicted of defaming Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif and Interior Minister Habib el-Adli.
The court said the editors had inflicted through their writings "direct damage" on the plaintiffs because "the assault on the ruling party and its figures could denigrate its status in the eyes of the community."
Abdel-Halim Qandil, editor of the al-Karama weekly newspaper, said the "severe" verdict would not weaken him.
"If this verdict against me was issued 1,000 times I will not back down on the idea of criticizing Mubarak on the grounds that it is an acquired right of freedom of the press," he said.
He said the judge was influenced by government attacks on the independent press.
State security prosecutors on Tuesday ordered Issa tried in a separate case on the same defamation charge after he was accused of spreading rumors about the health of Mubarak, in office since 1981.
Issa's al-Dustour was not the first to publish speculation about Mubarak's health, but the paper has a long record of hostility toward the president.
Government critics say the rumors, denied by the Mubarak family, have given authorities the pretext to attack the press.
The government says the rumors harmed Egypt and its economy.
Hammouda, editor of the al-Fajer paper, said yesterday's verdict was a sign that the ruling establishment has failed to discredit the independent press.
Hafez Abu Seada, secretary-general of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, said the two plaintiffs had no legal right to file the lawsuit because they were not damaged by what had been published in the four newspapers.
"This is something very unique to Egypt," he said. "I have never seen, at least in the last five years, any country that jails four editors in one day."