Jounalists defy gag order on Tantawi’s secret court testimony

A number of national and international news outlets, as well as several bloggers, have published reports on the testimony of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi in the trial of former President Hosni Mubarak, defying an Egyptian court-imposed gag order on media coverage.

Both Egyptian and foreign outlets, including Reuters and the New York Times, reported on the fact that Tantawi had given testimony in a secret session, with many alluding to the overall nature of his testimony, which prosecution lawyers hoped might support allegations that Mubarak ordered the killing of protesters during the 25 January uprising. For the most part, though, such news reports fell short of offering direct quotes from Tantawi's testimony.

However, such direct quotes were provided by one Egyptian news editor, who posted them on Twitter, in direct defiance of the gag order, with many Twitter users and several political bloggers republishing them immediately.

Mohamed Elgarhey, news editor of the privately owned Al-Tahrir newspaper, published what he alleged to be the full testimony of Tantawi before the court on Saturday. He said that he obtained the material from a journalist called Al-Waleed Ismail.

Elgarhey was praised by Twitter users in Egypt, who started to re-tweet the information. One Twitter user who passed on the testimony said: "I announce my full responsibility for breaching the publishing ban of the Mubarak trial."

According to Egyptian law, anybody breaking the gag order could face one year in prison or a hefty fine, or both.

Some bloggers copied the testimony and published it on their blogs, while Twitter users posted comments mocking the field marshal's testimony and his stock response of not being in posession of the relevant information. One mockingly asked whether Tantawi lives above a belly-dancer, in reference to the famous Adel Imam play, "A witness who didn't see anything."

Others pointed out that part of his testimony contradicted the testimony of former Vice President Omar Suleiman, who stated that Hezbollah members were present during the demonstrations, an accusation Tantawi denied.

Another Twitter user questioned Tantawi's qualification for the position he held at the time of the uprising – as minister of defence – if he was not aware of anything that was going on.

There were also questions raised concerning the credibility of the military council, which issued a statement on 17 May claiming that military commanders had refused orders to shoot protestors, a fact that appears to contradict the testimony given by Tantawi on Saturday.

“Under article 190 from the Penal Code, anyone who violates a court-imposed gag order will be punished by one-year imprisonment and be fined between 5000 and 10,000 pounds, or both,” said human rights lawyer Mahmoud Kandil.

Kandil added that Elgarhey obviously broke this “undemocratic law, but we have to note that many Egyptian newspapers have broken the gag order by publishing information about what was going on the session.”

While no Egyptian newspaper went so far as to quote from Tantawi's testimony, several of them provided coverage of the length of the trial and the number of questions raised by the judge, the prosecutors and the defendants' lawyers.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported from Cairo, quoting an anonymous lawyer who attended the session as saying: “He [Tantawi] failed to provide evidence one way or the other about Mr. Mubarak’s role in the crackdown on protesters, saying that he was not present in meetings that could have proven decisive to the prosecutors’ case.”

Reuters news agency, meanwhile, quoted a lawyer acting for the victims' familes as saying: "It is not legal to talk to the press on all details, but all I can say is in general Tantawi's testimony came in favor of the former regime and Mubarak."

The Facebook page “Down with Mosheer [Field Marshal] Tantawi,” which has around 9000 followers, published leaked information surrounding Tantawi’s testimony, with several posts on the page alleging that Tantawi testified in favor of Mubarak.

Among other things, the page carried reports that once Tantawi had given his evidence, pro-Mubarak supporters outside the Police Academy, where the trial is being held, began to rejoice, with women ululating.

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