Egyptian military frees detained journalist hours before planned demonstrations

The Egyptian military released a prominent journalist and rights activist on Tuesday after his detention drew widespread protest.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon had expressed concern about Hossam Bahgat's apprehension Sunday, which was denounced by local and international human rights organizations. Bahgat's release two days later came hours before demonstrations were scheduled to take place in Cairo, London and other cities.

A winner of the 2011 Human Rights Watch's Alison Des Forges Award, Bahgat founded the respected Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights group in 2002. In recent years, he has written a series of investigative reports for the online news organization Mada Masr.

Bahgat was interrogated for seven hours Sunday after receiving a summons from Egypt’s military intelligence, according to his lawyers. He later called friends to inform them that he would be taken to the military prosecutor to face charges of spreading false information to undermine national security in an article he wrote last month.

The article in question revealed the conviction of 26 military officers in late August on charges that they plotted to overthrow the government of President Abdel Fattah Sisi.

Bahgat was not brought before the prosecutor Monday, and military authorities refused to tell his lawyers where he was being held, according to a statement issued by 17 Egyptian rights organizations.

Bahgat’s friends and editors posted photos of him on social media following his release Tuesday. It was not immediately clear whether he would still face charges.

Before he was freed, Bahgat later said, he was dictated a statement to write saying, "I am committed to legal and security procedures in publishing any information regarding the armed forces, and I was not subjected to any physical moral or abuse during my detention."

Media rights groups accuse the Egyptian authorities of using such arrests to stifle criticism and prevent independent reporting, especially on security matters.

On the same day that Bahgat was detained, the national TV station Al Qahera suspended an anchor for appealing to Sisi to tackle corruption during a program about heavy rain and flooding last week in the cities of Alexandria and Beheira, Reporters Without Borders said in a statement Monday. The station reportedly accused Azzah Hinnawi of a lack of professionalism and said she would be questioned by judicial authorities.

Also Sunday, Salah Diab, founder of the daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm, was arrested at his home in Giza for reasons that were not immediately clear, the group said. His son was also reportedly taken into custody.

“The space for freedom of expression and information has never been so limited in Egypt,” said Alexandra El Khazen, head of the Reporters Without Borders Middle East desk.

In New York on Monday, a spokesman for Ban said Bahgat's apprehension was "just the latest in a series of detentions of human rights defenders and others that are profoundly worrying."

"The secretary-general again underscores the importance of safeguarding freedom of speech and association in Egypt," Stephane Dujarric told reporters.

The remarks drew a sharp rebuke Tuesday from Egypt’s Foreign Ministry.

“The comments jumped to conclusions and assumptions relating to the exercise of freedom of expression, which is guaranteed for all Egyptians by the constitution,” the ministry said in a statement.

Hassan is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis contributed to this report from Los Angeles.

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