An Egyptian military tribunal has convicted a blogger of insulting the army after he publicized reports of abuses by the military, and sentenced him to three years in prison, human rights groups said Monday.
The military court issued the sentence against Maikel Nabil Sanad, 26, a day earlier in the absence of his lawyers, according to a statement by seven Cairo-based rights groups.
It was the first trial of a blogger by Egypt's military rulers, who took charge of the country when former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted by anti-government protests Feb. 11 after an 18-day popular uprising.
Rights lawyers say the sentence has wide implications for freedom of expression in post-Mubarak Egypt, and could set a precedent for anyone seeking to expose wrongdoing or abuses by the military.
A member of the military council, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Assar, told an Egyptian private TV station, ONTV, on Monday that the armed forces are open to criticism.
"There is a difference between criticism with good intentions from a citizen, a journalist or a broadcaster, who mean the public good. There is no problem with that," he said. "The problem is in questioning the intentions (of the army)."
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said it was "shocked" by the three-year jail sentence, asking the authorities to review it and free him "without delay."
The case against Sanad, who was arrested two weeks ago at his home, was based on a blog post titled "The people and the army were never hand in hand," questioning the military's continued allegiance to Mubarak; as well as Facebook postings reporting allegations of abuse.
"Maikel was posting on his blog news published by rights groups, and newspaper clippings" among other things, said Adel Ramadan, Sanad's lawyer. "The danger extends to all bloggers, rights activists and journalists."
Rights groups have criticized the new military rulers for arbitrary arrests and speedy trials for civilians, saying their activities were reminiscent of those of the former regime.
Ramadan said more than 10,000 civilians have been convicted and sentenced by military tribunals since the army took over two months ago.
Military trials are swift, do not follow the procedures and rules of evidence of civil courts and their sentences cannot be appealed.
Ramadan was quoting official court records and military statements and included cases involving minor theft and land disputes as well as demonstrating and weapons possession.
Most Egyptians expressed joy when the military stepped in to remove Mubarak, chanting the slogan "the military and the people go hand in hand," but tension has since crept into the army's relations with the population.
In the early hours of the morning Saturday, soldiers forcefully stormed a protest camp to break up a sit-in, killing at least one demonstrator and wounding dozens. The protesters had been critical of the military.
Volleys of gunfire rang through the streets of downtown Cairo for hours until the military withdrew at sunrise.
Soldiers arrested 42 civilians, including two foreigners, all of whom are now facing military tribunals. Eleven were later released, including the foreign nationals.
Around a thousand protesters have now started a new sit-in at the country's iconic Tahrir Square in Cairo demanding the resignation of the minister of defense and head of the army, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi.
Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said Sanad's case also shows that the military cannot be criticized.
"It sets the military up as an establishment beyond criticism and beyond being held accountable," she said. "It sends exactly the wrong signal at a time when you are supposed to be transitioning away from abusive practices combined with official denial and failure to investigate."
It was also the harshest sentence against a blogger since 2004, when one was convicted of insulting the former president and offending Islam and sentenced to four years in prison.