Egypt military court sentences poet to prison for insulting army

CAIRO (Reuters) - An Egyptian military court sentenced a poet to three years in prison on Tuesday for publishing false news and insulting the military after he gained publicity for writing a satirical song that criticized the government, his lawyer said.

U.N. human rights experts had urged the government last week to acquit Galal El Behairy, expressing alarm at his arrest.

Behairy wrote the lyrics to the song “Balaha”, which has had more than 4 million views on YouTube. The title means “Date” in Arabic; it is also the name of a delusional character in a comedy film that has become a nickname for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi used by his critics.

The charges against Behairy are related to the title of an anthology of poems that plays on a phrase used to describe the military, which former general Sisi headed before he was first elected president in 2014.

Sisi has presided over what critics say is an unprecedented crackdown on free speech and dissent, with thousands of political opponents including Islamists and secular liberals alike jailed, citing a need to protect national security.

Hundreds of news sites and blogs in Egypt have been blocked in recent months and at least a dozen people arrested this year and charged with publishing false news, many of them journalists or prominent government critics.

Sisi’s government says that curbing fictitious news is necessary for national security.

“We are alarmed at the arrest and alleged ill-treatment of Mr El Behairy which appears to be related solely to the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of artistic expression and creativity,” a panel of six rights rapporteurs said in a statement to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“We are very worried at the reported criminalization of the legitimate exercise of artistic expression through the imposition of a range of dubious charges.”

Behairy, who was arrested at Cairo airport in March, was also fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds on Tuesday, according to his lawyer Mokhtar Mounir.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Writing by Cairo Bureau; Editing by Mark Heinrich