Egyptian court gives a government critic a 6-month sentence in a case condemned by rights groups

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court sentenced a fierce government critic Saturday to six months in prison over charges that stemmed from an online spat with a former minister and opposition figure. The case drew condemnation from rights groups and renewed global attention to Egypt's poor human rights record.

Hisham Kassem, who is a leading official with the Free Current, a coalition of mostly liberal parties, was convicted of slander, defamation and verbally assaulting a police officer, according to Hossam Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which represents Kassem before the court.

Bahgat said the court in Cairo also fined Kassem 20,000 Egyptian pounds (around $647). Saturday’s verdict is subject to an appeal before a higher court.

Kassem, who for decades ran a series of news outlets that helped keep alive pockets of independent, free press in the country, was arrested in August after persecutors questioned him on accusations leveled against him by Kamal Abu Eita, a former labor minister.

Initially, persecutors ordered Kassem's release on the condition that he pay a bail of 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($161). But Kassem refused to pay and was taken to a police station in Cairo, where he allegedly verbally assaulted police officers.

Kassem and his lawyers rejected the accusations.

Many rights groups criticized the arrest and trial of Kassem, including Amnesty International, which said the charges were politically motivated.

Egypt, a close U.S. ally, has waged a widescale crackdown on dissent over the past decade, jailing thousands of people. Most of those imprisoned are supporters of Islamist former President Mohammed Morsi, but the crackdown has also swept up prominent secular activists.

Egypt’s human rights record came under increasing international scrutiny ahead of the presidential election set for February. The government has been trying to whitewash its image, but Kassem's and other activists' arrests proved to be a blow to the 18-month effort.

In recent months, Egypt has allowed some criticism of its policies amid a daunting economic crisis and growing calls for political reform ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. The government launched a forum for dialogue with opposition parties and rights activists to enhance its human rights record and provide recommendations to the government on how to address its multiple crises.

The government also pardoned many high-profile detainees over the past months. Chief among them is Patrick Zaki, a leading human rights defender, and Ahmed Douma, one of the Egyptian activists behind the 2011 anti-government uprising that was part of the Arab Spring.

Still, the Biden administration said Thursday that Egypt’s poor human rights record hasn’t improved, but Washington won’t withhold as much military aid as it did in 2022.