Egyptian blogger critical of Islam goes on trial

Cairo, Egypt - An Egyptian blogger went on trial yesterday on charges of insulting Islam and causing sectarian strife with his Internet writings.

As Egypt begins its first prosecution of a blogger, Washington is backing away from pressuring its Mideast ally to improve its human rights record and bring democratic reform.

Abdel Kareem Nabil often denounced Islamic authorities on his Arabic-language blog, and criticized President Hosni Mubarak. Nabil has been in detention since November and faces up to nine years in prison if convicted.

Egypt has arrested a string of pro democracy bloggers over the past year, sparking condemnation from human rights groups.

Nabil's trial in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria began two days after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met with Mubarak, seeking support for a new American strategy on calming violence in Iraq.

But unlike past visits to Egypt when she pressed demands for greater democracy, Rice made no public reference to reform, instead praising the two countries' "important strategic relationship -- one that we value greatly."

In yesterday's court session, Nabil was charged with inciting sedition, insulting Islam, harming national unity, and insulting the president, a court official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of court rules.

Defense attorneys asked for more time, and the trial was adjourned to Jan. 25.

Nabil is the first blogger Egypt has put on trial for his writings. Other bloggers have been released without charges. But unlike the other detained bloggers, who concentrated on politics, Nabil wrote often on religion. Ahmed Seif al-Islam, an Egyptian rights activist, said the government was probably prosecuting him as part of its "competition with the Muslim Brotherhood to show its Islamic credentials."

In his blog, where he uses the name Kareem Amer, Nabil was a fierce critic of conservative Muslims and particularly al-Azhar University, a prestigious institution in the Sunni Muslim world where he was a law student.