The sentencing of a blogger to jail for criticizing Egypt's army has drawn a chorus of objections from rights groups, who say the country's ruling military council is drawing red lines around free speech.

Maikel Nabil, 26, was taken from his home in Cairo by five military officers early on March 28 and charged with insulting the military establishment and spreading false information, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

Nabil's lawyers were told the judge would rule on Tuesday but discovered he had already been sentenced in their absence on Sunday, HRW cited defense lawyer Adel Ramadan as saying.

Maikel Nabil's three-year sentence may be the worst strike against free expression in Egypt since the Mubarak government jailed the first blogger for four years in 2007, said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW. He urged the army to drop all the charges and release Nabil immediately.

Activists suspect anything from hundreds to thousands of Egyptians are being held and tried before military courts behind closed doors after President Hosni Mubarak's ousting on February 11.

The methods used by the Egyptian military do not seem to have evolved since Hosni Mubarak's fall, said Reporters Without Borders secretary-general Jean-Francois Julliard.

A civilian should not be tried by a military court. This is not the way things are done in the democratic society to which Egyptians aspire, he added.

Responding to a question about Nabil's trial, military council member General Mamdouh Shaheen said freedom of expression was enshrined in the law, but that it was a crime to say or do things that threatened the safety of the army.

Shaheen said on television channel ONTV that Nabil could appeal against the sentence, which will only be final once it is ratified by the chief of the military district.

In a blog entry on March 8, Nabil questioned the military's motives and posted photographs and video clips of protesters he said had been beaten by military police during the uprising that forced the president to quit.

In truth, until now the revolution was achieved by getting rid of the dictator (Mubarak), but dictatorship is still present, Nabil wrote.

The army, which enjoys broad popular support, has denied using excessive force against demonstrators during the uprising.

Since Mubarak's exit, the military rulers have promised free and fair elections and an end to emergency rule.

But HRW said it had seen a letter sent to Egyptian newspaper publishers from the ruling military council which said any news, pictures or press releases concerning the armed forces must be vetted first by military intelligence in order to protect national security.

(Reporting by Tom Pfeiffer and Isabel Coles)