Defense lawyers representing detained novelist Ahmed Naji appealed his two-year prison sentence in court on Wednesday, requesting that the appeal be looked into urgently.
In a press conference, Naji’s defense team, which includes lawyers Nasser Amin, Negad al-Borai and Mahmoud Othman, said that they will request that the implementation of the verdict be halted during the next week, to allow Naji — who has been detained since February 20 — to be released on bail and follow up with the developments of his case outside of prison.
The appeal explained that the Constitution (specifically in Articles 67 and 71) protected writers, intellectuals and artists from being imprisoned for their work or for publishing crimes. In spite of this, the novelist was charged with harming public morality in relation to the publication of excerpts from his novel Istakhdem al-Haya (The Use of Life) in Akhbar al-Adab newspaper last year, and sentenced to the maximum possible penalty in February.
Unlike the Constitution, Article 178 of the Penal Code stipulates a fine, imprisonment or both for distributing or publishing work that is “against public morals,” a law that the defense team argued was unconstitutional.
The appeal also argued that a misdemeanor court, which sentenced Naji, is not entitled to look into this case, since the charge of harming public morality falls under the jurisdication of criminal courts.
Lawyers stated that Naji was sentenced because he wrote the novel, according to the verdict, despite the fact that the incident that sparked the case was the publishing of excerpts in Akhbar al-Adab in August 2014. Article 178 was misused in this case, lawyers argued, as the court considered the act of writing in and of itself a justification of the penalty, as opposed to publishing.
The verdict also stated that the novel was shared on social networking websites following the first verdict acquitting Naji of all charges. The evidence presented in the case, however, consisted of a copy of the article and testimonies of two witnesses, and did not include the novel itself or social media posts related to it. Lawyers say, as a result, that the verdict should be annulled because it was based on “nonexistent evidence” in the case.
The appeals court also fined chief editor of Akhbar al-Adab, Tarek al-Taher, LE10, 000 in the same case in February. Othman asserted at the time that the verdict “ignored both the previous acquittal and the Constitution.”
The case dates back to 2014, when one of the newspaper’s readers filed a complaint explaining that he was “morally harmed” by the excerpts of Naji’s novel published in Akhbar al-Adab, due to its sexually explicit content. Based on the complaint, prosecution referred the case against the novelist and the editor to court.
Both Naji and Taher were acquitted in January, before prosecution appealed the verdict. In the acquittal, the court stated that it “believes that the evaluation of the content that harm public morality is very difficult to be constantly measured. What is seen by normal citizens as harming public morality is not the same for intellectuals, and whatever is considered morally harmful by extremists may not be the same for enlightened people,” according to a report published by the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
Naji’s sentence has sparked local and international outrage. Several campaigns have demanded that the sentence be immediately suspended, and rights organizations have condemned it as a blow to freedom of speech. A joint statement by Mada Masr, Qoll, +18 and Zahma has been published in support of Naji, along with another statement signed by 622 public figures.