Solidarity with Gaza brings jail

Activists and family members gathered at the Press Syndicate in Cairo to demand the release of Philip Rizk (who has since been released), Magdi Hussein, and other pro-Gaza detainees, 10 February 2009. (Per Bjorklund)

CAIRO (IPS) - Magdi Hussein, secretary-general of Egypt’s suspended Socialist Labor Party, has been sentenced to two years in prison by a military tribunal. Hussein, along with two others, was charged with “infiltrating” into the Gaza Strip following Israel’s recent campaign against the coastal enclave.

Protests against his arrest continue to be ineffective.

“It was an illegitimate, vindictive sentence, for which there is no moral or legal excuse,” Gamal Fahmi, managing editor of opposition weekly Al-Arabi Al-Nassiri, and board member of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate told IPS.

Hussein was arrested by Egyptian authorities on 1 February while returning to Egypt via the Rafah crossing, the sole transit point along Egypt’s 14-kilometer border with the Gaza Strip. Hussein was on his way back from a week-long visit to the territory, still reeling from Israel’s military campaign from 27 December to 17 January.

“People are free to travel from one country to another,” Hussein told independent daily Al-Dustour shortly after his arrest. “When did it become a crime to visit our besieged Arab brethren?”

While in the Gaza Strip, governed by Palestinian resistance faction Hamas, Hussein witnessed the destruction wrought by Israel’s recent campaign, during which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed, and infrastructure demolished. Hussein visited numerous bombed-out mosques and homes, as well as the badly damaged Palestinian parliament building, Gaza’s Islamic University and the al-Shifa Hospital, teeming with critically injured civilians.

While in Gaza, Hussein also spoke to the Hamas-run Al-Aqsa television channel and Sout al-Aqsa radio station. In live interviews, he criticized Egypt’s official stance vis-a-vis the conflict, particularly Egypt’s insistence on keeping the Rafah border crossing closed to both people and badly needed humanitarian aid.

Ever since Hamas wrested control of the strip in the summer of 2007, Egypt — like Israel — has kept its border with the territory sealed for the most part. Despite the increasingly desperate need for food, medicine and fuel supplies among Gaza’s roughly 1.5 million people, Egyptian authorities have continued to keep the border sealed both during and after the conflict.

Given the sensitive nature of the border area, which has come under frequent Israeli attack in recent weeks, Hussein’s expedition was not treated lightly by the authorities.

On 5 February, he was brought before a military tribunal in the canal city of Ismailiya on charges of “illicitly infiltrating across Egypt’s eastern border.” Independent daily Al-Bedeel reported the next day that Hussein’s lawyers had been banned from the courtroom and that his defense would be conducted by three state-appointed military attorneys.

In a second court session on 11 February, Hussein was slapped with a sentence of two years in prison in addition to a monetary fine. Outside the courtroom, security forces reportedly beat back dozens of Hussein’s supporters who had gathered to protest the harsh verdict.

One day earlier, two other activists — Ahmed Dumma and Ahmed Kemal Abdel-Aal — received one year in prison each on charges of “infiltrating” into the Gaza Strip.

On 12 February, the Journalists Syndicate organized a protest march in front of the syndicate’s Cairo headquarters to express its disapproval of the stiff sentencing.

“We strongly reject the trying of civilians before military courts,” Mohamed Abdel Qaddous, head of the syndicate’s freedoms committee, was quoted as saying by Al-Bedeel. “The committee will do whatever it can to secure Magdi’s release.”

According to Fahmi, the court’s accusations against the defendants have no basis in Egyptian law.

“There’s nothing in Egyptian law about ‘illicit infiltration’ over the borders,” he said. “Egyptians are frequently caught trying to immigrate to Europe illegally, and they are merely questioned and released — not sentenced to prison on charges of ‘infiltration.’”

Fahmi went on to say that, aside from a small protest march and a handful of angry statements, the Journalists Syndicate had done “nothing at all” to help Hussein, who was himself a syndicate board member from 1999 to 2003.

“Most of the syndicate’s board members are also members of the ruling National Democratic Party,” Fahmi said. “Their positions, therefore, generally reflect their affiliation to the regime rather than their loyalty to the syndicate or to their fellow journalists.”

The trial hardly represents Hussein’s first brush with the law. He was arrested twice in the past — in 1985 and 1991 — for organizing protests against normalized relations with Israel and the first US-led war against Iraq.

From 1987 to 1990, Hussein was an MP for Egypt’s Islamist-leaning Socialist Labor Party (SLP), established in 1978. In 1993, he became editor-in-chief of the party’s daily newspaper Al-Shaab. Four years later, Hussein was made party secretary-general.

In 2000, state authorities shut down Al-Shaab — after it ran a series of articles critical of high-level government officials - and officially suspended the SLP. Despite a number of subsequent administrative court rulings overturning the decision, the party has remained suspended, and Al-Shaab banned.

Even after the party’s suspension, however, Hussein continued to be a vocal critic of Egyptian state policy, especially as it pertained to the long-running Israel-Palestine dispute.

During Israel’s recent assault on the Gaza Strip, Hussein blasted the regime’s approach to the crisis, which he said favored Israel at the expense of the Hamas-led Palestinian resistance. In the first days of the campaign, Hussein told IPS that there had been “indications” of Egyptian coordination with Israel in advance of the attack.

Hussein’s wife, Naglaa al-Qalioubi, told Al-Dustour that the harsh verdict represented “a settling of scores” between the government and her husband. “It also has to do with the fact that Magdi was planning to call for a peaceful march on [25 February] calling for (President Hosni) Mubarak to step down,” she was quoted as saying [12 February].

According to Fahmi, the stiff sentence constitutes a warning to other would-be Gaza sympathizers. “It was a message to others not to make any show of solidarity with the people of Gaza, the way Magdi did.”

The use of military tribunals is permitted under the terms of Egypt’s controversial 28-year-old emergency law. In 2007, a constitutional amendment gave the president the additional right to refer civilians to military courts if the case in question “has a bearing on Egypt’s national security.”

Last year, 40 members of the Egyptian Brotherhood opposition movement were brought before a military tribunal on charges of money laundering and promoting terrorism in a months-long trial that ended with stiff jail sentences for most of the defendants.

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden.