An outspoken Egyptian tabloid news editor has been sentenced to six months in prison for reporting on the president's health problems, causing panic among foreign investors and threatening Egypt's economy in a highly publicized case, a court official said Wednesday.
Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the daily Al-Dustour, will post the 200 Egyptian pounds bail $40 to avoid serving his sentence while he appeals, added the official speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't not authorized to speak to the media.
"The state has been put at risk," Judge Sherif Mustafa also said while reading out the court verdict details. "He reported false news about the president's health which he knew were fabricated."
The judge added that the articles had threatened the economy.
"Investors withdrew their investment from the country and the stock market collapsed, costing the economy some $350 million," he said.
Eissa, who didn't appear during the trial, denounced the ruling as politically motivated.
"Is this a legal or political verdict? Is this a warning to journalists not to touch the President and not to write about anything related to him?" he said in an interview with the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera network.
The London-based Amnesty International rights group condemned the verdict and appealed to Egyptian authorities to allow greater media freedom.
"We urge authorities to stop bringing criminal charges in cases of this nature, when the press is reporting issues of clear public interest," said Nicole Chouiery, an Amnesty spokeswoman.
The case started when Eissa published stories in August speculating on the alleged failing health of President Hosni Mubarak. The articles, including one that said the president had lapsed into a coma, ran for several days.
Mubarak and state-run Egyptian media did not comment on or deny the rumors for weeks until the president appeared in photos and gave an interview to state-run media. Days later, first lady Suzanne Mubarak said in a rare television appearance that her husband was healthy and journalists who reported otherwise deserve to be punished.
Mubarak, 79, has ruled Egypt for more than a quarter century and hasn't designated successor. But many say his son Gamal is being groomed for power, a prospect that has sparked widespread opposition.
Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the head of Egypt's Press Syndicate known for his ties to the government, said the case against Eissa was still in its early stages.
"This is not final and I expect it won't be implemented," Ahmed said, predicting that before it went to the higher court, the ruling National Democratic party and the editor would reach a compromise.
"We hope that with dialogue we can overcome these court cases," Ahmed said by phone from Damascus, referring to ongoing negotiations between the government's Supreme Press Council and newspaper editors over a proposed new code of ethics for journalists that would discourage criticism of the president or his family in return for an end to government-instigated libel law suits
The 42-year-old Eissa was earlier sentenced to a year in prison along with three other newspaper editors in a separate case in September for defaming Mubarak and his ruling party.
The Al-Dustour newspaper is sharply critical of the government and often breaks political, social and religious taboos in its articles.
The paper was previously closed in 1998 for seven years by the government after it published a statement by an Islamist group threatening Coptic Christian businessmen in Egypt.
It reappeared on newsstands in 2005. But in 2006, Eissa was again sentenced to a year in prison for libeling Mubarak. An appeals court later reduced the sentence to a $4,000 fine.