Egypt jails high-profile political activist after others released

FILE PHOTO: Egypt demolishes historic Cairo cemeteries across the city for a new construction project

CAIRO (Reuters) -Egyptian authorities transferred prominent publisher and political activist Hisham Kassem to a prison on Wednesday awaiting trial on slander and verbal assault charges, his lawyer told Reuters.

Kassem is a leader of al-Tayar al-Hurr, or Free Current, a liberal group formed in June in opposition to the government of President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who is expected to run for a third term by early 2024.

Fellow al-Tayar al-Hurr organiser Gameela Ismail said the coalition intends to offer or support a candidate for the election, and that the government had been pressuring members since its formation.

Rights groups estimate tens of thousands of people have been jailed for political dissent under Sisi, who took power after leading the 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi.

Kassem was detained soon after the release of several high profile activists, including Ahmed Douma, who had been in prison 10 years, last week and researcher Patrick Zaki and rights lawyer Mohamed El-Baqer in July.

The U.S. State Department welcomed the releases, but urged Egypt to release "all unjustly detained political prisoners".

There was no immediate comment from the public prosecutor.

Lawyer Nasser Amin told Reuters the case's quick referral to trial before a ruling on a request for bail was unusually harsh for the crime. His trial is set for Sept. 2.

Ismail told Reuters that Kassem had been moved to the 10th of Ramadan prison.

"Hisham Kassem committed the crimes of insult, slander, and [verbal] assault," said a security source at the ministry of interior.

"Legal measures were taken against him, like in any case, and he was presented to the relevant prosecution for investigation in the presence of his lawyer."

Kassem in recent months has been especially critical of Sisi, an ex-general, and his government, which over the last year and a half has been mired in an economic crisis.

"The change that needs to happen is not just about Sisi no longer being in power, but a restructuring of the Egyptian economy that cannot happen with the military in power," he said in a BBC interview in July.

The government has sought to address freedom and human rights issues in recent years, including opening a national dialogue with civil society leaders and granting amnesty for some prominent prisoners.

Critics have dismissed the measures as cosmetic and say arrests have continued.

The initial slander case against Kassem was brought on Sunday by Kamal Abu Eita, a former government minister and member of a committee tasked with recommending pardons.

Kassem initially refused cash bail, indicating in Twitter and Facebook posts on Sunday he felt the case was political.

"I am more honourable than Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and all his men and his regime," he said.

Amin said Kassem's lawyers had submitted a request for bail in a different form, but were surprised by a second case lodged against him alleging verbal assault of public employees while detained, which he described as fabricated, and the referral of both cases to trial.

(Reporting by Cairo bureauEditing by Josie Kao)