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When bloggers are silenced, the world must speak for them

ICC NOTE: Nabil remains in prison today for speaking out against the injustice of Egyptian government and his criticism of Islam.

By Bridget Johnson

5/02/07 Egypt For the full article (USA Today) Democracy and the hunger for free speech are creeping across repressive societies, and the revolutionaries leading this charge are often the unlikeliest of soldiers — lone thinkers with minds for change and keyboards as their weapons. Linked to other warriors via the Internet, bloggers are finding that their views from politics to religion to pop culture share a unifying battle cry: a desire to speak freely.

Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman, a 22-year-old Egyptian student, blogged under the name “Kareem Amer” starting in 2004. He captured authorities’ attention the next year. Soliman denounced attacks he witnessed by Muslims on Coptic Christian establishments and panned extremist views taught at Al-Azhar University in Cairo — and risked his life in the process. Things only got worse for Soliman.

“It causes us to cry, be grieved, and be struck with frustration to find ourselves threatened with death,” he wrote on May 7, 2006, after escaping 20 fellow students wielding knives, leather belts and sticks who had surrounded his taxi outside the university. “Not because we kill. Not because we loot others’ property. Not because we transgress the limits of our freedom. But because we think!” In February, Soliman was sentenced to three years in prison for “insulting Islam” and one year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak. “I shall not recant, not even by an inch, from any word I have written,” read Soliman’s last blog post before his Nov. 6 arrest, when authorities were closing in. “These restrictions will not preclude my dream of obtaining my freedom.”

And so he sits in a prison, disowned by the father who said his son should be executed under sharia law if he did not repent. Egypt has turned a deaf ear to the growing global chorus demanding his freedom. Even the U.S. State Department has issued appeals on his behalf, says spokeswoman Elise Bower at the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor.

Now other bloggers in Egypt wonder whether they’re next.

“The Kareem Amer case has both caused bloggers to become more wary about what they write and more militant about their right to write it,” says Issandr El Amrani, the Cairo-based publisher of The Arabist, a cultural and political blog.

Bloggers face similar repression across the world. Reporters Without Borders tracks the number of imprisoned cyber dissidents at 65 (50 of them in China ). An analysis by the Committee to Protect Journalists found that one in three imprisoned journalists operated on the Internet.

“The risks are real,” says “Drima,” aka The Sudanese Thinker, who writes a political blog. “I’m being pressured to stop blogging by people who are worried about my safety and by others who are very intolerant of my views.” But he’s unbowed. “I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.”

As we mark World Press Freedom Day on Thursday, we unfortunately see that the United Nations body tasked with protecting rights — the Human Rights Council — has taken a giant step backward. On March 30, it passed a resolution urging the world to ban public defamation of religion, specifically Islam, thereby encouraging use of a charge under which Soliman was convicted. The council has passively allowed oppressive nations to stifle free speech and must change course or lose all credibility.