Egypt court keeps activist in jail as trial starts

CAIRO Sun May 5, 2013 11:50am EDT

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CAIRO (Reuters) - A prominent Egyptian blogger and political activist went on trial on Sunday charged with insulting President Mohamed Mursi, in a case his supporters see as evidence of an escalating crackdown on dissent.

Ahmed Douma is on trial for calling Mursi a criminal and a murderer during recent media interviews. His arrest on April 30 is the latest in several moves against dissidents accused of insulting the president elected last June.

Such cases have triggered criticism from the United States, which provides Egypt with $1.5 billion a year in aid, most of it for the military. It has accused Cairo of trying to silence Mursi's critics. The president says he respects freedom of expression.

Witnesses said 15 truckloads of riot police were deployed near the court in Tanta, 100 km (60 miles) north of Cairo.

The court rejected a request by Douma's lawyers for his release. Khaled Ali, one of the lawyers and a former candidate for the presidency, told the court there was no justification for his client to be kept in detention, Egypt's state news agency reported.

The judge referred the case to another court and set a May 13 date for the next hearing.

Douma began his online activism before the 2011 uprising that swept president Hosni Mubarak from power.

Heba Morayef, Egypt director with New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the start of Douma's trial marked a "procedural escalation" against such dissidents.

Mursi and his Islamist supporters have been fiercely critical of independently owned media they accuse of routinely printing false news about the president and the group.

Two dozen cases of "insulting the president" were brought in Egypt in the first 200 days of Mursi's rule - four times as many as during Mubarak's 30 years in power, according to a report by an Egyptian human rights group.

The presidency denies it wants to crush dissent. Mursi has pointed to his banning of pre-trial detention of journalists as proof of his commitment to a free press.

But his supporters still have the right to file formal legal complaints against his media detractors, and Egyptian law gives wide scope for prosecution on the grounds of defamation.

Television satirist Bassem Youssef, who is often compared to American "Daily Show" comedian Jon Stewart, was summoned by the state prosecutor for questioning in March for allegedly insulting Mursi and Islam.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)

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