Head of Egypt opposition party sentenced to jail

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CAIRO, Oct 29 (Reuters) The head of Egypt's nationalist opposition Wafd party and two party journalists have been sentenced to a month in jail after being convicted in absentia of libel, court sources said today.

The court rulings were the latest to target independent and opposition media in the most populous Arab country, where at least 11 journalists have been handed jail terms since early September.

Party leader Mahmoud Abaza was convicted and sentenced by a court in the southern city of Assiut on Saturday, the sources said. The editor of the al-Wafd newspaper, Anwar al-Hawari and the paper's Assiut correspondent, Younes Darwish, were also ordered jailed for a month each.

Court sources said the men were convicted of libel after the al-Wafd newspaper reported accusations against two businessmen of illegally appropriating land belonging to the Ministry of Religious Endowments.

Al-Wafd said the article in question was simply coverage of a village council meeting that included discussions of the land dispute. It planned to appeal.

The men were tried in absentia and did not appear in court.

The men remained free pending appeal.

The ruling was the second conviction this year for al-Wafd editor Hawari, who was handed a two-year jail term last month after being convicted of publishing lies about the justice minister.

Some analysts have linked the recent cases against journalists to preparations for a transition of power from President Hosni Mubarak, who at 79 has been at Egypt's helm for over a quarter century. The most likely successor is his 43-year-old son Gamal, who denies having presidential ambitions.

The White House said last month it was concerned about what it called setbacks on press and civil society freedom in Egypt.

Cairo has dismissed the criticism as unacceptable interference in internal affairs.

Reuters SKB RN1707

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