Leaders of the U.S. science academies are protesting Egypt's decision to jail Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a longtime human rights activist and perhaps the most prominent social scientist in the Arab world. On 21 May Ibrahim was sentenced to 7 years in prison for allegedly misusing foreign funds and defaming the Egyptian government. The presidents of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine last week asked Egyptian president Muhammed Hosni Mubarak to release Ibrahim, saying that he did not get a fair trial.
Human rights groups and scientists around the world have been stunned by the court's recent action, which also led to jail sentences for 27 of Ibrahim's colleagues at the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. This has been "absolutely a body blow to human rights activity in Egypt," says Morton Panish, formerly of AT&T Bell Labs and a member of the academies' Committee on Human Rights.
The trial took place in Egypt's Supreme Security Court. Observers say the charges appeared flimsy: For example, he was accused of mishandling a $250,000 grant from the European Union for monitoring election procedures, even though the E.U. had found no misuse of funds. According to the academy committee's report on the affair, released on 31 May, the prosecutor called no witnesses, and the judges returned a guilty verdict without reviewing volumes of defense material. The Egyptian Embassy in Washington, D.C., however, defended the verdict in a letter to The Washington Post.
"I think the government has been irritated with [Ibrahim] for a while," says Torsten Wiesel of Rockefeller University, chair of the human rights committee. Last summer, when out on bail, Ibrahim said in a speech at the American University in Cairo that he believed his uncovering of election fraud in parliamentary elections in 1995 and his plans to watch the fall 2000 elections prompted his arrest a year ago. Observers say Mubarak may have been ruffled by an article in which Ibrahim sniped at Arab leaders, including Mubarak, for grooming their sons to be their successors.
Ibrahim and his family plan to appeal to Egypt's highest judicial authority, the Court of Cassation. That appeal may be heard in a few months.
The letter to Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and the report about Ibrahim's case
For the letter from the Egyptian Embassy to The Washington Post, scroll down on this page
The academies' Committee on Human Rights