An Egyptian criminal court began on Saturday the trial of opposition journalist Hamdy Qandil accused of libeling Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit.
Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit had filed a complaint against Qandil alleging that he insulted him in a piece he wrote in the independent daily Shorouk last May.
He accused him of "insulting and libeling a public servant while performing his public duties.”
A judicial source said that the minister's defense team have called for the imposition of a fine of LE20 million (nearly US$3.5 million) on Qandil and the Shorouk’s manager for libeling the minister.
The same source said that a number of leading members from the National Association for Change (NAC)– which was founded by Mohamed ElBaradei, former chief of the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency, attended the session—including Novelist Alaa al-Aswani.
The prosecution team, meanwhile, charged Qandil with insulting a public servant while performing his work and urged the harshest penalty for Qandil.
Qandil, for his part, said he has only criticized the minister but did not insult him.
Earlier, Qandil had said that the case was politically motivated.
In his article, Qandil criticized statements made by Abul Gheit, saying that "words usually drop from his (Abul Gheit's) mouth like garbage from a perforated rubbish bag."
Qandil, long known for his pan-Arabist sentiments, used to host a number of television shows including several programs on state-controlled television stations. Earlier this year, he joined the NAC, becoming its media spokesperson.
Qandil's TV programs are known for their severe criticism of the Egyptian government.
Al-Libiya satellite channel had stopped broadcasting a monthly program for Qandil without stating reasons for the ban.
Media experts have recently voiced concerns over the referral of a growing number of Egyptian journalists to criminal courts.
In June, the Committee to Protect Journalist appealed to Egyptian Finance Minister Youssef Boutros-Ghali to drop criminal charges against two journalists from a weekly independent newspaper.
Ghali had filed the charges against Wael al-Ibrashy, editor-in-chief of Sawt al-Umma, and Samar al-Dawi, a reporter, whom he accused of inciting the public to reject a new property tax law drafted by the government in 2009.
Rights groups have voiced concerns of referring journalists before criminal courts.