An Alexandria court sentenced an Egyptian blogger to four years in prison on Thursday for insulting both Islam and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Abdel Karim Suleiman, a 22-year-old former law student who has been in custody since November, was the first blogger to stand trial in Egypt for his Internet writings.
He was convicted in connection with eight articles he wrote since 2004. Rights groups and opposition bloggers have watched Suleiman's case closely, and said they feared a conviction could set a legal precedent limiting Internet freedom in Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country.
"This is yet another slap in the face of freedom of expression in Egypt," the London-based rights group Amnesty International said in a statement. The group considers Suleiman to be a prisoner of conscience, jailed solely for peacefully expressing his opinion, the statement added.
The Paris-based press freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders said the sentence was "a disgrace" and the United Nations should respond by disqualifying Egypt from hosting an Internet Governance Forum in 2009.
"It is time the international community took a stand on Egypt's repeated violations of press freedom and the rights of Internet users," the organisation said in a statement.
A fellow blogger who runs the Rantings of a Sandmonkey blog said: "It's a dangerous precedent because it will impact the only free space available now, which is the Internet. The charges were undefined and vague."
"Tell me. What does insulting the president mean? What is the difference between criticising religion and being in contempt of religion?" he added, asking to remain anonymous.
The Internet has emerged as a major forum for critics of the Egyptian government to express their views in a country where the state runs large newspapers and the main television stations.
While Suleiman was the first blogger to go on trial for the content of his writings, other opposition bloggers have been arrested periodically during street protests and then held for weeks or months before being released.
Suleiman, a Muslim and a liberal, has not denied writing the articles but said they merely represented his own views. His lawyers said they planned to appeal the verdict, and one member of the defence team described the trial as unfair.
One of Suleiman's articles said that al-Azhar in Cairo, one of the most prominent seats of Sunni Muslim learning, was promoting extreme ideas. Another article, headlined 'The Naked Truth of Islam as I Saw it', accused Muslims of savagery during clashes with Christians in Alexandria in 2005.
He has also described some of the companions of the Muslim prophet Mohammad as "terrorists", and has likened Mubarak to dictatorial pharaohs who ruled ancient Egypt.
"I was hoping that he would get a harsher sentence because he presented to the world a bad image of Egypt. There are things that one should not talk about, like religion and politics. He should have got a ten-year sentence," said lawyer Nizar Habib, who attended the trial as a member of the public.
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