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No prison time for defamation

The interim cabinet ratified three new bills, restructuring the Supreme Press Council and the National Council for Human Rights

EGYPT-POLITICS-UNRESTInterim president Adly Mansour ratified on Monday three bills submitted by the newly appointed cabinet during its first meeting.

The first bill removed prison sentences as a punishment for “insulting the president”; such defamation charges would be punishable only by a fine ranging between EGP 10,000 and EGP 30,000, reported state-run news agency MENA.

In an earlier interview, lawyer at the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) Hassan Al-Azhary said the amendment was a “positive move,” yet insufficient; he stated there should be no legal charge such as “insulting the president.”

The second bill amended Law 97 (1996), giving the president the right to form a new Supreme Press Council made up of 15 members. The new council would replace the one formed by the now-dissolved Shura Council in September 2012, comprising 50 members. The old council’s formation was highly criticised, with Abeer Saady, Press Syndicate board member, describing it as “flawed”.

The 15 members would include the head of the Press Syndicate and two other syndicate representatives chosen by its general assembly. The syndicate’s general assembly would also be consulted in the appointment of four public figures and a prominent journalist. The members would also include the head of the Writers Union, a representative from the Ministry of Finance, the head of the Press and Publishing Workers’ Union and a union representative. The Supreme Universities Council would recommend two journalism professors and two law professors experienced in press legislation.

Saady said the bill was suggested due to the dire need for a body that would manage the affairs of state-run press in the absence of the Shura Council. She added that the new council would be an interim one, its mandate elapsing by the end of the current transitional period.

The third ratified bill ordered the restructuring of the National Council for Human Rights (NCHR). The new council would be formed by the cabinet, and its mandate would remain until a new parliament is elected.

In a statement released by the cabinet following its meeting, it said it would restructure the council due to the resignation of the council head Hossam El-Gheriany and “the special circumstances of a big number of its members.”

Mohamed Al-Damaty, NCHR deputy chairman, said the ratified bill violated the Paris Principles which relate to the status and functioning of human rights national institutions. He said that according to the Paris Principles, the NCHR can only be formed by a legislative body and not an executive one, given it is tasked with observing legislative bodies.

“This law is scandalous,” Al-Damaty said. “It’s an attempt to marginalise all Islamist movements and Islamist sympathisers.”

Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, council member and Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, is currently detained and accused of insulting the judiciary. Arrest warrants have been issued to other council members including Brotherhood leading figure Mohamed Al-Beltagy and Salafi preacher Safwat Hegazy for inciting violence.

Al-Damaty said he believed the membership of some current council members should be suspended, including Hegazy and Al-Beltagy. “It’s not acceptable for someone who is accused of inciting violence to remain a member of the council; they should be replaced. But Abdel Maqsoud, for instance, is unjustly held … nobody should be punished until a final court verdict incriminating them is issued.”

He said instead of restructuring the council, the interim president and his cabinet should have just replaced some members.

The NCHR was formed by the Shura Council in September 2012, also stirring controversy upon its formation.

Workers at the NCHR’s general secretariat disclaimed the current council members and have been calling for the council’s restructure since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi.

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