Amnesty International has criticized the Egyptian authorities’ use of criminal defamation charges to silence and harass activists, after the trial of two leading human rights defenders and a prominent blogger started on Saturday.A court in Cairo heard the case of the three men on charges of “defamation”, “the use of threats” and “misuse of communication tools”, after allegations of extortion were made by a judge in 2007.Gamal Eid, Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) and Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad, founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center (HMLC) both appeared before the Khalifa Court of Misdemeanour on Saturday.Egyptian blogger Amr Gharbeia, now an Amnesty International staff member, was not in court but was represented by his lawyers. “Questionable criminal defamation charges are used to harass human rights defenders and those critical of the authorities in Egypt,” said Amnesty International.”We fear that these latest charges are a further attempt to intimidate independent human rights organizations, which are already subject to severe restrictions, including state-security vetted registration and tight government rules on foreign funding.” If convicted, the men may face imprisonment and a fine. Following Saturday’s hearing the next hearing has been scheduled for 26 June.The charges appear to be part of a wider crackdown against dissent and criticism of the authorities and public officials, as Egypt prepares for elections to the Shura Council, Parliament’s upper house in June. The charges relate to a February 2007 complaint by Judge Abdel Fatah Murad, which accused Gamal Eid and Ahmed Seif El-Islam Hamad of trying to extort money from him.Days before the complaint, ANHRI and HMLC had published a statement accusing Abdel Fatah Murad of plagiarizing an ANHRI report on restrictions on the internet in the Arab world and reproducing it in his book.The statement by ANHRI was in response to a book review written by Amr Gharbeia on his blog on 7 Feb 2007, in which he covered the anti-freedom of expression stance in Murad’s book, The Scientific and Legal Principles of Blogs. An investigation by the Egyptian Public Prosecution followed, and Amr Gharbeia was interrogated for possible “defamation” on account of comments left for a limited period of time on his blog posted by third parties.The charges are the latest in a series to be brought against human rights campaigners and critics of government policies.A lawsuit for criminal defamation has also been brought by the Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs against the journalist Hamdi Kandil, who had criticized the minister in a 3 May article in newspaper Al-Shuruq. Hamdi Kandil was summoned to be informed of the charges by the Public Prosecution on 18 May. If convicted, he faces imprisonment and a fine. Hamdi Kandil is the spokesperson for the National Association for Change, which calls for political reform in Egypt.On the same day of the trial, the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper published an article accusing human rights activists of painting a negative image of the human rights situation in Egypt in order to make personal financial gains through foreign funding. The newspaper articles followed visits by human rights activists to Brussels to expose the deteriorating human rights situation in Egypt and to call on the EU to press the Egyptian government to honour its human rights obligations. In a further incident, Nasser Amin, Director General of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP) was interrogated on 17 May 2010 by the Public Prosecutor about a complaint filed against him by a State Council judge.The complaint relates to a statement made by Nasser Amin to the Al-Dostor newspaper and published in their weekly edition on 3 March 2010 in reaction to the vote by the General Assembly of the State Council against the appointment of women as State Council judges.The report included a description of the State Council judges as having a “mental disorder” which was inaccurately attributed to Nasser Amin.”The right to freedom of expression involves the right to freely criticize public officials, public officers, public personalities and authorities. This ability is fundamental for civil society to hold the authorities to account. Egyptian officials should respond on the merits of the criticisms raised rather than try to silence them,” said Amnesty International.