EIPR condemns five-year prison sentence for children on blasphemy charges: 12 defendants convicted in 9 cases since January 2015; 11 cases pending before courts and more cases pending before disciplinary bodies

Thursday 25 February 2016

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights condemns the convictions and sentences recently handed down in cases involving he so called “defamation and insult” of Islam. In the most recent case (no. 350/2015), the Beni Mazar Juvenile Misdemeanor Court sentenced three Coptic students—Muler Atef Daoud, Albert Ashraf, and Bassem Amgad—to five years in prison. A fourth defendant, Clinton Magdi, was placed in a juvenile penal institution when the case was referred to trial. The students had created a video mocking certain practices of the Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh). In another case, the Edku Misdemeanor Court on February 23 upheld a three-year sentence issued in absentia against Mustafa Abd al-Nabi after he published some religious opinions on his personal Facebook page. The EIPR notes that these sentences are part of a vicious assault on civil liberties and violate citizens’ constitutional rights, most importantly, freedom of religion, opinion, and expression.

The EIPR has documented nine cases since the beginning of 2015 in which 12 defendants, including Copts and Muslims, both Shia and Sunni, as well as atheists, were convicted. More than 11 cases are still pending before the Public Prosecution. Some 14 defendants are charged in these cases under Articles 98(f), 160, and 161 of the Penal Code, which criminalize contempt of religion. Several of the defendants have been detained pending investigation for periods exceeding the legal limit, while others were released on bail. Still other cases are pending that involve administrative sanctions, such as work suspension and docking of wages.

“The investigating and judicial bodies are not providing the necessary protection to these victims,” said Ishak Ibrahim, a research with EIPR. “In fact, in many cases they have contributed to the infringement of defendant’s basic rights. The Public Prosecution has openly sided with complainants or assailants while judges adopt conservative interpretations of vague penal legal provisions, in the process violating many inalienable rights such as freedom of belief, freedom of expression, and the right to a fair trial. Defendants are also punished for the same act several times, with various charges piled on with the goal of extracting the maximum sentence possible. Charges are filed not only under blasphemy provisions, for example, but under the child law and the communications law as well.”

The EIPR warns of the danger of restrictions on citizens’ rights in the name of protecting religion or the public order or morals, for these restrictions curtail the most fundamental liberty on which all other liberties are based: the freedom of expression and belief.

The EIPR calls for the repeal of Article 98(f) of the Penal Code, which is the basis of prosecution of most of the victims, as well as the release of all persons prosecuted or convicted in connection with blasphemy charges. We also urge the Public Prosecutor’s Office to issue a periodic circular regulating procedures for complaints, investigations by the prosecution, and referrals to various courts.

Background: assaults on Coptic property in Nasseriya

Starting on April 7, 2015 and for several days afterwards, the town of Nasseriya, located in the district of Beni Mazar in the northern Minya governorate, saw sectarian attacks on Copts’ property and attempts to storm the village church after a Christian teacher, Gad Youssef Yunan, and four high-school students (Albert Ashraf, Bassem Amgad, Muler Atef, and Clinton Magdi) were accused of blasphemy, insulting Islam, and fomenting sectarian strife. The students had made a 30-second video in which they mocked how ISIS organizes prayers yet massacres its victims at the same time.

The video segment was filmed during a trip organized in 4th February 2015 , using a mobile phone camera and without premeditation. The teacher, who filmed the segment, lost his phone memory card. It was found by Muslims in the village who watched the video and filed a complaint against the Christian teacher, who was arrested on April 7. The Beni Mazar Prosecution detained him for four days pending investigation on charges of showing contempt for Islam. The families of the Christian students turned their children over to the police station.

As news of the video spread, many townspeople organized a march around the village streets, chanting slogans hostile to Christianity and Christians. Participants threw bricks at Copts’ homes and banged on their doors and windows. Several local Muslims intervened to break up the mob.

In the days following, marches were again organized during which participants vandalized a photography studio and a pharmacy and broke the doors and windows of several Copts’ homes, although the security forces were deployed near the scene of the attacks.

A customary reconciliation session was organized on Friday, April 17, at the office of the village mayor Magdi Ibrahim. It was attended by the deputy interior minister for Minya and Assyout, the Minya security director, several Muslim and Christian (Orthodox and Evangelical) religious leaders, and parents of the four accused students.

It was decided in the session to permanently expel the Christian teacher, Gad Youssef, from the village, along with his wife and three children. The students were allowed to remain in the village, and the mayor pledged to protect them when they were released from detention. It was also decided that legal action against the teacher and students would proceed and Christian villagers would apologize for incident.

Father Adher, the priest of the Church of the Virgin, stood and issued an apology to village Muslims for the offense, and after the reconciliation agreement was concluded, the deputy interior minister for Minya and Assyout warned those present, “After today’s reconciliation, I will not permit any infractions. I’ll deal with this legally from now on, and we will not look lightly on any other matters after this reconciliation…There’s no joking after this. We will deal forcefully with any person who breaks the law.” Several sheikhs also spoke at the reconciliation meeting about the need for coexistence between Muslims and Christians and supporting the values of brotherhood and love.

After charging the defendants with blasphemy-related charges, the Beni Mazar Summary Prosecution renewed the defendants’ pretrial detention several times. On May 14, 2015, the Beni Mazar Appellate Misdemeanor Court released teacher Gad Youssef on bail of LE10,000. His family paid the bail, but he was detained at the Beni Mazar police station for several more days prior to release. The school that employees him also refused to pay his salary, or the half salary required by law in the event of the suspension of a civil servant. After he was released and expelled from the village with his family, his request to be transferred to another school was also denied. On December 27, he was convicted and sentenced to three years, and bail of LE2,000 for the temporary suspension of the sentence.

On May 27, 2015, the Minya Felony Court ruled to release three of the detained students—Muler Atef Daoud, Bassem Amgad Hanna, and Albert Ashraf Hanna—while the fourth, Clinton Magdi Youssef, remained in detention until June 3, 2015.

The Beni Mazar Prosecution severed the case into two suits. In the first, case 18784/Beni Mazar misdemeanor, the teacher was referred to trial under Articles 98(f), 102, and 161 of the Penal Code. According to the referral order, he performed Islamic rites in a way that does not comport with proper religion and disseminated it using a media means, and this while Christian with intent to show contempt for Islam. The first trial session was set for October 25, 2015. The session was adjourned in preparation for the next session on December 6, and on December 27, 2015, the court sentenced Gad Youssef Yunan to three years in prison and bail of LE2,000 for temporary suspension of sentence.

During the trial, the defendant’s attorney argued that there was no criminal intent and no material act: the teacher did not perform the prayer and there was no prior preparation or premeditation. The incident involved a spontaneous act by the students inside a private room and the video lasted no more than half a minute. Defense counsel asked to screen the video before the court to comment on the content and compare it with the report of the technical expert, but the court denied the request.

In the second case, no. 350/2015/Beni Mazar juvenile misdemeanor, the prosecution charged Muler Atef Daoud, Bassem Amgad Hanna, Clinton Magdi Youssef, and Albert Ashraf with performing Islamic rites in a way that does not comport with proper religion and disseminating it using a media means, and this while Christian with intent to show contempt for Islam by imitating prayer rites in order to foment sectarian strife.

The first session was convened on October 8, 2015. The court adjourned to October 22 and the session of December 31 was set for judgment. It was later postponed, and in today’s session the judge sentenced three of the students to five years in prison and placed the fourth student in a juvenile facility. The court also refused defense counsel’s request to screen the video in the court’s present to discuss the contents and compare it with the report of the technical expert assigned to transcribe it.