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Egyptian Court: Blogger Guilty of Insulting Islam, President Mubarak

An Egyptian court has sentenced a dissident blogger to four years in prison for insulting Islam and the Egyptian president. It is the first time anyone has been convicted of those crimes in Egypt in connection to writings on the Internet. Human rights groups say the conviction is a sign that Egypt is expanding its crackdown on freedom of expression into the Web. Reporter Cache Seel has details from Cairo.

A court in Alexandria convicted blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman of "incitement to hate Islam and defaming the President of the Republic," for remarks he made on his Internet site.

Suleiman, a 22-year-old former law student at Al-Azhar University and an aspiring human rights lawyer, was sentenced to four years in prison.

Blog is short for web log. It is a personal web site used for anything from an online diary to a platform for political and social criticism.

Suleiman has not denied writing the blog, which sharply criticized both Al-Azhar University, the highest seat of learning for Sunni Muslims, and President Mubarak, but said he was merely presenting his personal views.

Of the charges brought against him, defaming the president has drawn the most criticism from other bloggers and human rights groups.

"Basically the court is saying, is setting the precedent that it is not allowed, it is forbidden in this country to criticize the regime or the head of the regime," said Fadi al-Qadi, a spokesman for Human Rights Watch.

Several of Egypt's opposition bloggers have been detained by authorities during the past year, but Suleiman is the first to stand trial for the content of his site.

Alaa Seif, who has been running a blog since early 2004, and has himself been imprisoned for political activism, has followed the trial closely and was in the courtroom when the verdict was read.

"He got four years, three for defaming Islam and one year for insulting the president, and that is actually more disturbing. Finding him guilty of this particular offense would have a chilling effect or could have a chilling effect on the blogosphere," he said.

Suleiman's lawyers described the trial as a test of freedom of expression in Egypt and said they plan to appeal the guilty verdict. Freedom of expression is to be protected under the Egyptian constitution.

Blogging has become very popular in Egypt during the past few years with an estimated 6,000 active bloggers, some of whom run multiple sites.

The relative anonymity of these sites has created a forum for criticism of the government and they have recently come under attack by authorities for exposing cases of alleged police brutality.