The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) is deeply concerned by a judgment issued by the Gamaliya Misdemeanor Court on 26 February, sentencing Amr Abdullah, an Egyptian Shiite, to five years in prison with labor on charges of blasphemy and defaming the prophet Mohamed’s companions, pursuant to Article 98(f) of the Penal Code. The EIPR criticized the ongoing prosecution of religious minorities, especially Shia Muslims, based on this flawed article, which in effect leads to citizens being tried for their religious beliefs. This violates freedom of religion, belief, opinion and expression—fundamental human rights protected by the new Constitution and international conventions ratified by Egypt.
A security detail from the Gamaliya police station arrested Amr Abdullah as he entered the Hussein Mosque on the holiday of Ashoura, 14 November. The previous days had seen sharp disputes on social media platforms and in the press, as several Shia citizens declared their intention to celebrate Ashoura at al-Hussein Mosque, while a group calling itself the Coalition of Muslims in Defense of the Companions and Prophet’s Family rejected the notion and said that its members would prevent Shia from organizing such a celebration.
According to Hamdi al-Assyouti, the defendant’s lawyer, the prosecution referred Abdullah to trial pursuant to Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, based on his statement under questioning that he was a member of the Shia confession. The prosecution thus overstepped the bounds of the criminal interrogation by questioning the defendant about his beliefs and opinions of religious rites, undermining the neutrality of the interrogator. Condemning the conduct of the prosecution, al-Assyouti said, “The objective and goal of the interrogator is to find the truth, whether this implicates or exonerates the defendant. As such, a prosecutor can show no bias on the allegation until the charge has been officially filed with the court.”
The EIPR warns against the marked, worrying increase in the number of religious defamation cases and trials in the last three years. These constitute a direct threat to religious liberties and a flagrant violation of freedom of opinion and expression. This same period has also seen ordinary citizens engage in violence and collective punishment of their fellow citizens simply because they express their beliefs.
“We have documented 48 cases of vigilante harassment and judicial prosecution from January 2011 to the end of 2013,” said Ishak Ibrahim, an EIPR researcher. “In some of these cases, customary sanctions were applied, while in others employers levied penalties. In 28 of the cases, the issue reached a court of law.”
The number of these cases before courts increased from only three in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and 13 in 2013. Courts convicted 27 of 42 defendants tried on defamation charges. Three defendants were acquitted and charges against 11 defendants were rejected due to lack of standing; one case, that of defendant Sherif Gaber, is still pending before a misdemeanor court.
The EIPR demanded an end to legal and judicial action against Shia Muslims and the amendment of all legal provisions that may be used to punish citizens for their religious beliefs, which constitute a grave infringement of the current Constitution and international conventions ratified by Egypt.
For more details on religious defamation cases after the revolution, see the EIPR’s report on the topic and its view of the unconstitutionality of Article 98(f) of the Penal Code: Click here