Egyptian blogger and filmmaker Wael Abbas
Egyptian blogger and filmmaker Wael Abbas (photo taken from Threatened Voices)

UPDATE March 12, 2010: Wael is convicted again on a different charge and sentenced to 6 months in prison. Neither he nor his attorney were notified of the new accusation. They will appeal. Read the full reports from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Arab Network for Human Rights Information, and the BBC.
UPDATE Feb. 18, 2010: Wael is acquitted.
Last week, the Egyptian blogger and filmmaker Wael Abbas, who has used online video to expose police brutality and other human rights abuses in Egypt, was sentenced to six months in prison for a misdemeanor charge of damaging his neighbor’s internet cable. This week, his appeal was set for February 18.
Most of the time, Abbas is a go-to guy for the likes of the BBC (a segment from the January 10, 2010, HARDtalk is below), CNN, and the New York Times when they want to portray Egyptian activism. And last year, when Abbas and his mother were attacked in their Cairo home by the brother of the man bringing the suit against him, the Committee to Protect Bloggers and others followed closely. But where are they now? Why can’t I find much Englishlanguage reporting, investigative or otherwise, about his case in the international press? While it’s certainly not the only factor in pressuring authorities to do the right thing, telling the story in English can have a wide-reaching and positive effect.

Here is the summary of the case, as presented by the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), whose legal aid unit is handling Abbas’ defense and appeal:

The public prosecutor has filed the complaint submitted by Wael Abbas in April 2009 after he had been physically assaulted by a police officer and his brother. The complaint was concluded allegedly for insufficient evidence despite the presence of three medical reports including a forensic record of injuries and despite that one of Wael’s teeth got broken.

Officer Aglan, of Cairo tourist police force, and his brother Ahmed Aglan raided Wael Abbas house in Hadayek ElQobba and beat him up leading to several injuries on his body and a broken tooth. The officer abused his connections such that his brother would report Wael for damaging the brother’s internet cable.

It is known that Abbas has become the favorite target for frequent harassment by Egyptian security. He was arrested more than once at Cairo airport. He was prevented from traveling and his computer was illegally seized. Today’s ruling came to top the violation set.

“Wary of showing solidarity”

To date few international news outlets have written about Abbas’ sentence. It should have been easy as a follow-up to the international attention generated by the arrested and released Nag Hammadi bloggers (of which Wael was one). Not to mention the utter weirdness that Wael is being prosecuted by the same people who attacked him and his mother last April.

It may be that the journalists, activists, and organizations that usually offer support are “wary of showing solidarity,” says Alaa Abd El Fattah, another prominent Egyptian activist and blogger, because Abbas’ arrest has been predicated on the prosecution of a normal misdeameanor. That is, instead of Abbas being charged with a crime of expressing himself repeatedly on his blog, which presents no dilemma about coming to his rescue, Abbas has been charged with tampering with a neighbor’s property, which leaves more room for debate about who’s right and who’s wrong.

It’s a “very common trick,” says Abd el Fattah, to try to divert attention away from the actual issue—in this case, freedom of expression—by landing a blow somewhere else. The real issue gets clouded, and the victim and his or her supporters get disoriented. The fact is that Abbas, who’s not always the most popular blogger, has suffered repeated harrassment. But his high-profile status, until now, has protected him from arrest on overtly political grounds.

Don’t let them fade

It would be easy to let Wael’s case or the cases of other threatened bloggers fade into the distance when byzantine court proceedings linger on or other momentous events like the Haiti earthquake or the crash of Ethiopian Airways Flight 409 take place. But it’s important that we (activists, journalists, bloggers, tweeters, and self-publishers) take steps to keep foregrounding these cases until the change we hope for happens.

Put Wael’s appeal date on your calendar, and set up a reminder to ask publicly (on your blog, Twitter, via SMS), What happened to Wael’s appeal? In the meantime, Alaa Abd El Fattah, offers some suggestions of what we can do now:

1- Contact your embassy in Cairo. Pressure them to officially inquire and show concern. Make it clear that you believe strongly this is a political case and not a criminal one.

2-Contact the Egyptian embassy in your country and ask about Wael. Again, make it clear that you are not buying the official story.

3-Contact local and international media and journalists, ask them to cover the story. Wael is well-known and has been interviewed many times but this particular threat is being ignored. Explain to them that Wael is not the only blogger or activist facing covert prosecution through trumped-up criminal charges.

4-Contact NGOs and even governmental agencies concerned with human rights, freedom of expression, press freedom, digital liberties, protecting human rights defenders. Make sure they know about the case and understand the threats.

5-More importantly, in situations like these, one’s morale tend to be very low. The feeling that he is fighting this on his own makes it even worse. Your direct expression of solidarity and support may not influence the courts, but it sure is important for Wael.

6-Finally, try and learn more about the situation in Egypt. Wael is being punished for exposing the truth. By knowing and spreading this truth you make sure he doesn’t take these risks for nothing.