Human Rights Watch (Washington, DC)

Egypt - Repeal Laws Used to Convict Author - Blasphemy Rules Harm Free Expression

press release

Beirut — Egyptian authorities should stop prosecuting writers and repeal laws violating freedom of expression, including those banning "contempt of religion." Egypt's 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of belief.

A criminal court in the central Egyptian town of Beba on May 7, 2013, sentenced land rights activist and author Karam Saber in absentia to five years in prison and fined him 1000 Egyptian pounds (EGP) (US$140) - the maximum sentence - for contempt of religion in connection with his 2010 collection of short stories, "Where Is God?", which tells the stories of poor farmers in Egypt. In April 2011, citizens from Beni Sueif filed a legal complaint alleging that Saber's book promoted atheism and contradicted religious precepts. A Beba appeals court, in Beni Sueif governorate, will consider Saber's appeal on June 5, 2014 - the author's last opportunity to avoid prison.

"Rather than prosecuting Karam Saber for giving voice to poor farmers, authorities should bring Egypt's laws into harmony with its new constitution and international obligations" said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. "Freedom of expression is at the heart of a tolerant, democratic society."

On June 3, Saber's lawyers argued their case before Cairo's Administrative Court, asking it to compel Egypt's president and prime minister to issue a directive suspending prosecutions based on those laws, on the grounds that they are incompatible with the country's new constitution, approved by referendum in January 2014.

Article 64 of the new constitution affirms that "freedom of belief is absolute." Article 65 guarantees every person "the right to express his or her opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication." Article 67 holds that "freedom of artistic and literary creativity is guaranteed," and that "no freedom-restricting sanction may be imposed for crimes committed because of the publicity of artistic, literary, or intellectual product."

However, article 98 of the Egyptian Penal Code sets out the punishment of prison sentences of between six months to five years and fines of EGP500-1000 ($70-140) for those convicted of "exploiting religion in spreading, either by words, in writing, or in any other means, extreme ideas for the purposes of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting [the Abrahamic faiths] or a sect following it, or damaging national unity."

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party, upholds the right to freedom of expression. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body that interprets the ICCPR, noted in 2011 that "[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant."

Prosecutions under Egypt's blasphemy laws were common during the terms of Presidents Hosni Mubarak, Mohammed Morsi, and interim President Adly Mansour. Researchers for the nongovernmental Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights documented dozens of judicial prosecutions for blasphemy and showing contempt for religion since 2011. Courts convicted 27 defendants on charges of contempt for religion from early 2011 until late February 2014. Judges acquitted three defendants and rejected charges against 11 others for lack of standing.

On February 26, the Gamaliya Misdemeanor Court sentenced Amr Abdullah, an Egyptian Shia Muslim, to five years in prison on charges of blasphemy and defaming the prophet Mohamed's companions, after he entered Cairo's Hussein Mosque on November 14, 2013, the Shia holy day of Ashura. That arrest followed media controversy over Egyptian Shias' announcement that they would seek to worship publicly on that day.

Police arrested a 20-year-old student, Sharif Gabir, on October 26, 2013, after he declared himself an atheist on a social networking website, following a complaint from the director of Suez Canal University, in the city of Ismailia. Authorities held Gabir on renewed 15-day periods of detention until December 2, when a judge ordered his release on bail. His case remains pending.

"Although Egyptian authorities claim blasphemy laws maintain social peace, they often have the opposite effect," Stork said. "Prosecuting people for beliefs peacefully expressed validates, rather than combats, intolerance."

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