Egypt: atheist gets prison for Facebook posts

An Egyptian court in Baheira governorate on Jan. 10 sentenced a student to three years in prison for announcing on Facebook that he is an atheist and for allegedly "insulting Islam." The sentence, the latest of several handed down on blasphemy charges in recent years, comes amid a coordinated government crackdown on perceived atheists. Authorities arrested the student, Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, with a group of others at a youth café in Beheira in November, Egypt's Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression reported. "Atheists are one of Egypt's least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism."

Al-Banna's sentencing is part of a wider government push to combat atheism and other forms of dissent. It came after police closed a so-called "atheists café" in downtown Cairo on Dec. 14. Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told AFP that a local newspaper identified al-Banna as an atheist after his arrest, and that neighbors had subsequently harassed him. Al-Banna’s lawyer, Ahmed Abdel Nabi, told AFP that al-Banna’s father had testified against his son and accused him of "embracing extremist ideas against Islam." A court will hear al-Banna’s appeal on March 9, and his bail has been set at 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($140), his lawyer told AFP.

Since Egypt's 2011 uprising, authorities have increasingly investigated blasphemy allegations stemming from both private complaints and government prosecutions. The majority of those investigations have concerned alleged insults against Islam, though at least two men have received prison sentences on charges of insulting Christianity. Recently, authorities have started to target atheism.

On Dec. 10 the Dar al-Ifta, a Justice Ministry wing that issues religious edicts, released a survey claiming that Egypt is home to 866 atheists, the highest number of any country in the Middle East. Two aides to the Grand Mufti—the head of the Dar al-Ifta—described the supposed increase in atheism as "a dangerous development" that "should ring alarm bells," Mada Masr newspaper reported.

From 2011 to 2013, courts convicted 27 of 42 defendants on charges of contempt for religion, according to the EIPR. Judges acquitted three defendants and rejected charges against 11 others for lack of standing. Egypt is party to human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, which require its government to respect and protect freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, without any discrimination. Article 64 of Egypt's constitution states that "freedom of belief is absolute" but guarantees "freedom of practicing" only to followers of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

Blasphemy prosecutions continued in 2014. On Dec. 27, prosecutors filed charges against writer Fatima Naaout for allegedly writing sarcastic comments on her Facebook wall about the slaughter of animals for the Eid al-Adha holy day. In June, an appeals court in Beni Suef governorate upheld a five-year sentence in absentia for Karam Saber, who was charged in 2010 after publishing a short story collection entitled, "Where is God?"

Also in June 2014, separate courts in Luxor governorate imposed blasphemy sentences of up to six years on four people. A court sentenced Kirollos Shawki Atallah to six years for posting photos on Facebook deemed defamatory to Islam. An appeals court upheld a conviction and imposed a six-month sentence on Dimyana Obeid Abdel Nour, a primary school teacher whose students had accused her of ridiculing Islam. The same appeals court issued six-month blasphemy sentences for Shahira Mohamed Ahmed Suleiman and Khalifa Mohamed Kheir, according to the EIPR.

In June 2013, a court in Assiut governorate sentenced a Coptic Christian lawyer, Roman Murad Saad, in absentia to one year in prison with hard labor for "ridiculing" the Koran at a Lawyers Syndicate meeting. In December 2012, a blogger, Albert Saber, was sentenced to three years in prison, accused of establishing an "Egyptian Atheists" webpage. He was released on bail pending his appeal and fled Egypt. (HRW, Jan. 13; AFP, Jan. 12)