Egyptian blogger accused of violence released
Egyptian authorities released a prominent Egyptian blogger Tuesday after he refused to cooperate with prosecutors over allegations of instigating violence against the country's most powerful Islamist group in comments posted on social media.
The blogger, Alaa Abdel-Fattah, was freed following his demand that an investigative judge take over his case, according to one of his lawyers, Malek Adly. His attorneys are now awaiting a decision on the request, which amounts to a snub to the prosecutor's office by questioning its independence.
Abdel-Fattah handed himself in to authorities earlier Tuesday, a day after the country's prosecutor general ordered his arrest along with four other activists also accused of inciting violence. The arrest warrants stoked concerns among Egypt's opposition that Islamist President Mohammed Morsi was using the prosecutor's office to go after political opponents.
The allegations against the activists are rooted in clashes between supporters and opponents of Morsi outside the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in east Cairo last week that left 200 people injured in the worst bout of political violence here in months.
Activists say the arrest warrants, which closely followed a televised address by Morsi in which he warned that he would soon take exceptional measures in the face of violence, could herald a wave of arrests of opposition leaders.
Abdel-Fattah and the other activists questioned the independence of the prosecutor general, saying he is beholden to Morsi. The president appointed the prosecutor late last year despite an uproar from the judiciary.
Dressed in a prison jumpsuit to show his readiness to face jail, Abdel-Fattah arrived at the Cairo office of Prosecutor General Talaat Abdullah on Tuesday surrounded by several dozen protesters chanting slogans denouncing Morsi and his group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
From inside the prosecutor's office, the blogger posted messages on Twitter saying that most of the accusations against him were based on comments sent to his account by others, rather than anything he posted himself. He also said on Twitter that he refused to respond to the authorities' questions "because of partiality of the prosecutor general."
However, the prosecutor's office offered a different account. The prosecutor's spokesman posted a message on the office's official Facebook page that said Abdel-Fattah cooperated with officials during the questioning. It said he denied the accusations against him, and that the Twitter or Facebook accounts were his.
Abdel-Fattah and his lawyer dismissed the prosecutor's version of events, and said they will file complaints against them for allegedly forging official documents.
"I said only that I stick to my right to be silent," Abdel-Fattah told The Associated Press. He said his lawyers refused to admit the evidence to the case because they were photocopies of social media websites. "They did no investigative efforts at all."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the U.S. was seeking information about the charges against the Egyptian political activists.
"We need to get more information, but absolutely anything that squelched the freedom of information would be a deep concern for the United States," he said.
This is not the first time Abdel-Fattah has butted heads with Egypt's authorities since the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak more than two years ago. He was detained for two months in late 2011 by the then-ruling military over allegations he attacked soldiers carrying out a bloody crackdown on protesters. He was later released without charge.
The Friday clashes outside the Brotherhood's Cairo headquarters were the worst violence between the Brotherhood and its opponents in three months.
The protest was called in response to earlier violence outside the building, in which Brotherhood supporters beat up several activists and attacked reporters. Both sides brought hundreds of supporters to the new demonstration, which devolved into street fighting with knives, fists, stones, sticks, and birdshot. Both sides beat the others' followers. Police fired tear gas but did not try to separate the two sides.
Brotherhood officials accuse the protesters of attacking its offices and say its members were defending the building. Protesters, in turn, blame Brotherhood members for sparking the violence, saying they tried to encircle the rally from behind.
At least six anti-Morsi protesters were detained during the violence, and the prosecutors ordered them to be held for 15 days pending investigation.
Brotherhood offices have frequently been ransacked and torched in Egypt's recent turmoil, including also outside of Cairo on Friday.
Later Tuesday, the state news agency quoted a judicial official as saying that prominent anti-Brotherhood lawyer, Hamdi el-Fakharani, was arrested on his way to his hometown in the Delta province of Gharbiya, over allegations he instigated violence against Brotherhood offices there.
The prosecutor's office says it is examining statements and video clips posted on activists' Facebook and Twitter accounts, which allegedly include calls to burn the offices of the Brotherhood and kill Brotherhood members. A wider inquiry will examine the contents of social networking sites in the run-up to Friday's clashes.
Abdel-Fattah and the other activists ordered detained were key figures in the 2011 anti-Mubarak uprising who later led demonstrations against the military generals who took power after Mubarak. Since Morsi took office in June as the country's first democratically elected president, they have protested what they see as the new leader's dictatorial style of rule.
The opposition accuses Morsi of acting like his predecessor, of not living up to his promises to have an inclusive political process and of acting in the Brotherhood's interests rather than in Egypt's national interest.
The Brotherhood, meanwhile, accuses the opposition of having no grassroots support, and says the president should be challenged through the ballot box, not street protests.
Meanwhile, Egypt's interim parliament, the Shura Council, said it is working on drafting a law to regulate protests. The law would give the authorities the right to deny permission to demonstrations that harm "citizens' interests," including by blocking traffic.