updated 10/1/2007 7:40:49 PM ET 2007-10-01T23:40:49

A newspaper editor facing criminal charges for reporting that Egypt’s president was ill accused the government Monday of launching an organized campaign to silence the media and said it would take a miracle for him to escape a prison sentence.

Ibrahim Eissa, an outspoken critic of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and editor of the independent daily Al-Dustour, skipped the opening session of his trial Monday but was represented by lawyers from across the political spectrum.

“The regime is taking this case too personally. I’m very surprised by a state that insists on considering the president’s health as a military secret, while this case will set up a political circus at the court, which will keep people talking about the president’s health,” Eissa told The Associated Press at his newspaper offices Monday.

“The whole political society feels the danger of a state that is laying an ambush against journalists and freedom of expression,” he added.

Eissa’s trial comes amid a recent crackdown on the country’s opposition press.

Bush administration decries actions
Last week, the Bush administration made an unusual public statement of discontent with the Egyptian leadership over the allegations against the media. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the recent measures contradict the Egyptian government’s stated commitments to expand democratic rights.

Egypt’s Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit responded by saying the U.S. statements were “unacceptable interference in Egypt’s internal affairs.”

Pro-government lawyer Samir el-Shishtawi filed a lawsuit against Eissa for his paper’s recent reports questioning the health of 79-year-old Mubarak.

The lawyer said he filed the lawsuit for the “pain, sadness and depression I felt because of what Eissa published about false rumors about Mubarak’s health.”

Egyptian law allows private citizens to file lawsuits against individuals for allegations that damage society and the lawsuits can carry criminal convictions.

Eissa, 41, could face up to three years in prison if convicted, one of his lawyers said.

The trial opened under heavy security. Judge Sherif Kamel asked for the governor of Egypt’s central bank to testify in a coming session about the allegations that the rumors prompted the “withdrawal of foreign investments worth more than $350 million over the two days that the rumors were published.”

Kamel later adjourned the trial until Oct. 24.

No publicly designated successor
For several weeks in August, several opposition and independent newspapers published stories speculating that Mubarak’s health was poor. The president, who has ruled Egypt for more than a quarter century, has no designated successor. But many say his son Gamal is being groomed for power, a prospect that has raised widespread opposition.

Al-Dustour carried front-page stories for several days, including one that contended Mubarak sometimes lapses into comas.

Mubarak and state-run 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.

Early last month, first lady Suzanne Mubarak said in a rare television appearance that her husband is healthy and said journalists who reported otherwise deserve to be punished.

Eissa said he fears he will be thrown in jail and his newspaper shut down.

“I need a miracle not to be sentenced to prison,” he said. “This regime thinks like an ostrich and strikes like a bull.”

Eissa and three other editors of tabloid-style newspapers were sentenced to a year in prison in a separate case earlier last month for defaming Mubarak and his ruling National Democratic Party in various articles. They have appealed.

Three other journalists given jail
A Cairo court last week also sentenced another opposition newspaper editor and two journalists to two years in prison for allegedly publishing false news about the country’s judiciary.

Al-Dustour is sharply critical of the government and often breaks political, social and religious taboos in its social commentaries. Its sharp language earned the ire of censors and its copies were confiscated several times in the 1990s.

The paper was previously closed in 1998 for seven years by the government after it published a statement by an Islamist group that threatened Coptic Christian businessmen in Egypt.

It reappeared on newsstands in 2005. But last year, Eissa was sentenced to a year in prison for libeling Mubarak. An appeals court later reduced the sentence to a $4,000 fine.

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