Rights groups warn blasphemy laws are targeting Egypt’s minorities

After a Luxor court sentenced a Coptic teacher to six months in prison for defaming Islam, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) issued a press release on Thursday condemning the recent spate of blasphemy cases brought before Egyptian courts.

Since 2011, a total of 48 cases accusing the defendant of blasphemy or defamation of religion have been brought before the authorities, according to the EIPR statement, the majority of which targeted Egypt’s Christian minority.

The recent sentencing represents the third blasphemy trial to be heard by Luxor’s courts this year alone, according to the EIPR. The defendant in the case, Damiana Ebeid Abdel Nour, was previously found guilty of defaming Islam in June 2013, and was sentenced to an LE100,000 fine by the Luxor Misdemeanors Court.

In April of this year, the same court sentenced two Muslim defendants, Shaheera Suleiman and Khalifa Kheir, to six months in prison on the same charges.

Another Luxor court is also in the midst of trying Kirolos Atallah, a Coptic Christian, on charges of defaming Islam on his Facebook page. A verdict is expected in the case on June 24.

On June 4, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement calling on the Egyptian authorities to repeal its blasphemy legislation and to refrain from prosecuting individuals for their writings, works or Internet activity.

This statement was issued specifically in regards to the case of author Karam Saber, who was prosecuted for his collection of short stories entitled “Aiyn Allah?” (Where is God?)

The day after HRW issued the statement, however, the author was sentenced to prison for his artistic work.

Although Saber and his lawyers claim that his book is not atheistic, on June 5, the Beba Misdemeanor Court in Beni Suef upheld a 5-year prison sentence levied against the author.

In another high-profile case, former Christian-turned-atheist Alber Saber — not related to Karam Saber — fled the country in January 2013 after he was found guilty of defaming Islam and disseminating atheist thought on his Facebook account.  He was sentenced to three years imprisonment in December 2012.

According to the Egyptian Penal Code, “Ridiculing the heavenly [Abrahamic] faiths, and the propagation of atheism in words, writing, or other means is punishable by sentences of imprisonment for up to five years, and/or fines of up to LE1,000.”

Other articles in the code further stipulate that desecrating religious symbols is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison, and/or fines of up to LE500, while mocking a religion or religious rite in public is a crime carrying the same penalties.

However, these articles appear to conflict with the freedoms stipulated in the Constitution ratified in early 2014.

Article 64 of the new Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedoms, while Article 65 safeguards freedom of thought, expression and opinion.

AD