Coptic teacher Bishouy Kameel was acquitted of insulting Islam by the Assiut Appeals Court on Sunday, after he had already served three years of his six-year sentence.
The case dates back to July 2012, when Kameel was accused of posting statements on Facebook that criticized then-President Mohamed Morsi and the Islamic religion. Kameel claims that someone with a vendetta against him created a fake account in his name, but he was found guilty of insulting the president and Islam.
“Kameel accused someone called Micheal of creating a fake account, but the prosecutor replied: ‘Bishouy or Micheal, it doesn’t make a difference,’ as they both are Copts,” Mina Thabet, a researcher on minority groups for the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, told Mada Masr.
In December 2015, Kameel’s lawyers appealed the guilty verdict.
Thabet believes that fabricating blasphemy charges against religious minorities has become commonplace.
“If any citizen belonging to a minority group dared to say remarks similar to those of Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zend, they would immediately be sent to trial,” Thabet argued, referring to Zend’s recent remarks that he would jail even the Prophet Mohamed if he was found guilty of a crime.
Thabet pointed to a similar case from May 2012, when during a discussion with a number of Islamist lawyers, Coptic lawyer Roumany Saad expressed his dissatisfaction with the first round of the presidential elections that ultimately brought Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Morsi to power. According to the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), the lawyers then began to discuss religious debates, after which the Islamist lawyers formally accused their colleague of insulting Islam. Saad was sentenced in absentia to one year in prison in July 2013.
The number of blasphemy cases has spiked in recent months. In late February, a Minya court sentenced three minors to five years in prison and sent a fourth to juvenile detention after they criticized the Islamic State in a video. At the end of January, poet, journalist and ex-parliamentary candidate Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison and an LE20,000 fine after she wrote a Facebook post criticizing the tradition of sacrificing animals during the Eid al-Adha holiday.
These rulings came shortly after TV host and preacher Islam al-Beheiry was sentenced to a year in prison in December for insulting Islam on his controversial show “With Islam.”
International organizations like the New York-based Human Rights Watch have criticized Egypt’s blasphemy laws, saying they curtail freedom of expression as guaranteed by the Constitution. Critics point to Article 98 of the Penal Code as the source of the problem — the article stipulates that insulting the Abrahamic faiths and the propagation of atheism in words, writing or other means is punishable by up to five years in prison and/or fines of up to LE1,000.
“We will continue to move in this never-ending circle as long as Article 98 of the Penal Code is not annulled,” Thabet argued.
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on religious freedoms for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, told Mada Masr that most defendants convicted in blasphemy cases are religious minorities like Copts, Shia and atheists.
According to statistics compiled by Ibrahim, since January 2015 nine verdicts against 12 defendants have been issued in blasphemy cases, while another 12 cases are still under investigation. From 2011-2013, 28 out of 42 defendants were convicted of insulting religion charges.
“The changes in political leadership across the last five years have not impacted the rise of contempt of religion cases. But now we can see a major shift,” explained Ibrahim. “While most of the cases against public figures were annulled under the rule of the military council and Morsi, public figures are now being convicted, like Fatima Naoot and Islam al-Beheiry.”