AN Egyptian academic paid the price yesterday for pursuing democratic values in a country where political dissent can be treated as a crime.
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, 63, a sociology professor and human rights advocate whose work has been backed to the tune of 252,000 (158,000) by the EU, was sentenced to seven years in prison by a Cairo court.
He was accused of embezzlement, receiving foreign funds without authorisation and "tarnishing Egypt’s image".
But at the heart of the case were EU grants to his political think-tank, including money to monitor and encourage voting in Egypt’s latest parliamentary elections in 2000.
The prosecution, his supporters said, was aimed at limiting political debate in Egypt. His research has explored such sensitive subjects as electoral fraud and the treatment of mostly Muslim Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.
Dr Ibrahim’s case has been followed closely by EU and US officials. He holds joint US-Egyptian citizenship, and is a professor at Cairo’s American University, the principal of which leapt to his defence yesterday.
Western observers, who have been a regular presence in court, were surprised, and shocked by the severity of the sentence. "The expectation was that the ruling would have been otherwise than what we learned today," said Paul Nyborg, an official of Denmark, which holds the EU presidency.
The EU, in an affidavit, denied the main charge against Dr Ibrahim - that he had misused EU grant money.
Amnesty International said yesterday that his trial was intended to silence the human rights movement in Egypt. "It is showing people what can happen to them if they speak out of line," added an Amnesty spokeswoman, Sara Hamood.
"What we’ve said from the beginning is that the charges are politically motivated. It seems the authorities are trying to silence the civil rights community."
The sentence announced by the court came after Dr Ibrahim’s second trial on the charges. His conviction last year was quashed and he was released on bail for the retrial.
Dr Ibrahim, wearing a blue T-shirt and sweating in the stifling courtroom, immediately promised another appeal. "I am as determined to fight on as ever for freedom and democracy and pay whatever it takes," he said.
His wife, Barbara, called yesterday’s events "the saddest day for Egypt that I have seen in the 27 years I lived in this country. The rule of law died today".
Barbara Ibrahim, a US native, met her husband at an Indiana university.
Negad Borai, a leading Egyptian lawyer and political reform advocate, said the verdict revealed "that Egyptian laws are autocratic by nature".
Twenty-seven co-defendants, all staff members of the think-tank Dr Ibrahim founded and ran, were convicted of bribery and fraud charges. Dr Ibrahim and three others, who received lesser jail terms, were driven away from the court in a van with barred windows.
Barbara Ibrahim said her husband, who walks with a cane and suffers from a neurological disorder, had not expected a verdict and had not taken his medicine to court.
The prosecutor, Sameh Seif, told the state security court that Dr Ibrahim was using funds raised through his think-tank, the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Development Studies, for personal gain, and had lured his staff into an embezzlement scheme. However, one of the witnesses, Khaled Fayad, said he had been forced during his imprisonment to make false accusations of embezzlement against Dr Ibrahim.
Among the democracy projects the Ibn Khaldun Centre created was a documentary meant to encourage voters by showing that electoral fraud is less likely when citizens participate. Prosecutors claimed it tarnished Egypt’s image.
Egypt’s government is sensitive to criticism about the treatment of Coptic Christians in the country. A report Dr Ibrahim did on the status of Copts was also cited by prosecutors.
In June 2000, Dr Ibrahim wrote a magazine article on "the Arab world’s contribution to political science" that looked at how Arab leaders paved the way for their sons to succeed them. He suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, might like a son for a successor. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested and held for 42 days before being charged with the crimes that formed the basis of yesterday’s verdict.