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Philip Rizk, Gaza Activist, Freed In Cairo

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CAIRO — Egypt released a German-Egyptian blogger arrested after protesting against the Gaza offensive but jailed three other pro-Palestinian activists in a crackdown on critics of the government's stance in the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Philip Rizk, a 26-year-old graduate student at the American University in Cairo and a blogger passionate about the plight of Palestinians in Gaza, was held for five days by plainclothes security forces until his release Wednesday. He was arrested after marching with 15 others through the countryside outside Cairo carrying pro-Palestinian banners.

Many in Egypt are angry over the government's response to Israel's devastating Gaza offensive, contending their country could have done more to support the Palestinians.

Egypt is increasingly sensitive to that criticism and appears to be reining in a new generation of activists. The arrests over Gaza are the latest chapter in what has been a wider government crackdown on bloggers and independent activists over the past year.

Rizk, a graduate of Wheaton College near Chicago, spent two years in Gaza and produced a documentary about daily life there.

State Security has not said why he was detained. But his blog about the situation in Gaza was critical of Egypt's refusal to open its border crossing with the impoverished Palestinian territory during Israel's three-week offensive to stop Hamas rocket fire. Gaza officials say 1,300 Palestinians were killed.

On Tuesday, Egyptian military tribunals convicted two young activists, Ahmed Douma and Ahmed Kamal, of illegally crossing into Gaza and blogging about the war there and sentenced them to a year in prison. Opposition politician Magdi Hussein, 58, was sentenced to two years in prison on Wednesday for a similar offense.

On Friday, police arrested 22-year-old blogger Diaeddin Gad at his home north of Cairo. He remains in custody after criticizing Egyptian policy on Gaza in his blog, "Voice of Anger," according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. A number of others are also believed to be in custody for similar activities.

Ahmed Droubi, a 26-year-old environmental consultant who was present when Rizk was arrested, said the regime overreacted to the small, peaceful march on Friday because they did not expect it.

"I think they were shocked. There was something they didn't hear about. Suddenly they just found these 15 people walking in the middle of nowhere," he said, describing the six-mile march through the countryside north of Cairo.

Every member of the march was questioned and had their information taken down by officers, and many later received visits at their homes or workplaces from plainclothes security men.

"I haven't slept at home in three days," said Travis Randall, 26, of Boulder, Colo., who took part in the march. He said lawyers recommended he wait until the furor over the whole affair had calmed down before returning home.

"They believe it's an intimidation thing," he said.

Droubi, who spoke to Rizk after his release, said he was not tortured.

"There was no physical mistreatment. He was interrogated for hours upon hours though," Droubi said.

With most traditional avenues of political dissent closed, bloggers have gained prominence in Egypt in recent years, exposing government corruption and police brutality. Security agencies have struck back, and more than half a dozen are either in jail or out on bail with cases pending.

Online media also played a major role in the campaign to release Rizk. Within hours of his detention a Facebook group with thousands of members had been founded, as well as a Web page dedicated to the campaign. Small but spirited rallies were held for his release around Cairo and in Europe and the U.S.