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Journalists at loggerheads over Qallash sentence
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 23 - 11 - 2016

Days after 82 people jailed for breaking the Protest Law received presidential pardons, journalists and human rights organisations were shocked by a ruling on Saturday sentencing the Chairman of the Press Syndicate Yehia Qallash, and two board members Khaled Al-Balshi and Gamal Abdel-Rehim, to two years in prison for providing refuge in the Syndicate's headquarters for two fugitive journalists. The three were bailed for LE 10,000 each pending appeals against the sentence. Appeal hearings are scheduled to start on 25 December.
No journalists were admitted to the sentencing session on 19 November. Many had hoped the six month trial would end in the defendants' acquittal and bring to an end the ongoing crisis between the Press Syndicate and the Interior Ministry.
The case began against the backdrop of protests against the Maritime Border Agreement signed between Egypt and Saudi Arabia in April which conceded control over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Riyadh, when Amr Badr and Mahmoud Al-Sakka, two journalists working for the small news Website Yanayer (January), announced they would hold a sit-in at the headquarters of the Press Syndicate to protest an arrest warrant issued against them.
Badr and Al-Sakka said they were following a long-standing tradition by Egyptian journalists to seek the syndicate's help when facing legal problems related to their work. While prosecutors said the two journalists were involved in organising anti-government protests, the journalists claimed they were being persecuted for writing articles opposed to the Red Sea islands deal.
Thousands of anti-riot police were deployed around the syndicate's building in Downtown Cairo on 25 April to prevent protests due to be held that day. The Front in Defence of Egyptian Protesters, a local human rights group, reported that by the end of the day at least 1200 people had been arrested across Egypt.
Badr and Al-Sakka entered the syndicate building on 30 April. They said they intended to request help from Qallash in assuring proper legal procedures were taken in response to the arrest warrant issued against them. Twenty-four hours later between 25 and 30 police officers, dressed in civilian clothes, entered the syndicate and arrested Badr and Al-Sakka.
It was the first time in the syndicate's 75-year history that police had entered the building without seeking the permission of the Press Syndicate's head. The drama did not stop there, however. Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek issued a statement rebuffing charges by Qallash that police violated the law by breaking into the syndicate's offices without informing him first as is required in the law regulating the Press Syndicate. Two weeks later Qallash, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim were summoned for questioning and charged with hiding two suspects - Badr and Al-Sakka – wanted by the police. Qallash and the two members of the Syndicate's board were detained overnight until prosecutors released them on bail. A few days later their trial opened at Abdin Court.
A member of the Press Syndicate's 12 seat board said many of his colleagues “were facing strong pressure” not to escalate the confrontation with the Interior Ministry “if we want the two-year jail term against the chairman, Al-Balshi and Abdel-Rehim to be overturned”.
The day after Saturday's ruling, Al-Balshi wrote on his Facebook page that “concerned parties” had contacted him and suggesting he “calm things down if we wanted the candy of getting acquitted”. He added, “I don't like candies, and this sentence is meant to humiliate all Egyptian journalists and to silence us.”
In statements to reporters Qallash denied any wrongdoing, saying the syndicate did not provide refuge for criminals on the run. “We were simply carrying out our role as a syndicate and defending our members. Neither myself, nor any board member, had advance knowledge of Badr and Al-Sakka's intention to come to the syndicate,” he said.
“Now we are paying the price for defending freedom of the press in Egypt, and we are ready to pay that price.”
Badr and Al-Sakka spent five months in prison. They were released in October despite the serious charges filed against them. The release created a sense of optimism that the case the syndicate would also be closed and that no jail sentence would be issued against Qallash and the two board members.
During October's Youth Conference held in Sharm El-Sheikh President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi promised to review the position of young people jailed for breaking the controversial Protest Law and on Thursday pardoned 82 prisoners.
Youssef Al-Qaeed, a journalist and MP, says the court ruling against Qallash “undermined the pardons issued by the president”. He added that throughout a long career he had never imagined the head of the Egyptian Press Syndicate would be jailed.
On Monday 21, local human rights organisations issued a statement criticising the ruling. It was, they said, part of an ongoing campaign to suppress freedom of expression and association in Egypt.
The Press Syndicate's board has held two meetings since the ruling was issued as well as calling for a general assembly. Some syndicate members have called for a strike and demanded the removal of the interior minister.
Informed sources say such escalation will not happen as long as the case remains before the courts. Journalists themselves are far from united. After the police raided the syndicate's headquarters and arrested Badr and Al-Sakka editors of state-owned newspapers criticised Qallash's actions and accused him of political grandstanding. .
Qallash was elected in March, 2015 and has said he plans to run for a second two-year term in March 2017. His opponents accuse him of sacrificing the interests of the wider membership to a radical, leftist agenda.

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