Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1285, (3 - 9 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

Protest at contempt rulings

Five-year prison sentences against four Christian teenagers convicted of “contempt of religion” has revived a campaign to amend laws limiting freedom of expression, reports Khaled Dawoud

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Nearly two years ago a teacher jokingly recorded a 30-second video of four Christian students mocking the practice of beheadings carried out by the terrorist Islamic State (IS) group. The last thing the teenagers, from the village of Nasserya near Bani Mazar in Minya, expected was that they would end up with five-year prison sentences after being convicted on charges of “contempt of religion”.

On 25 February, the Bani Mazar Juvenile Court sentenced Muller Atef, Bassem Amgad and Albert Shafik to five years in prison. The fourth defendant, Clinton Magdy, was ordered to be kept at a juvenile detention facility for the same period due to his age.

Two months earlier, a separate court sentenced their teacher, Gad Younan, to three years in prison on the same charge of insulting the Islamic religion.

The sentences sent shockwaves through the Coptic Christian community in Egypt, as well as among members of parliament, human rights organisations and political parties. There were demands that the law that allows imprisonment on an unclear charge like “contempt of religion” should be abolished, noting that it has also been used to suppress freedom of expression and to discriminate against Christians.

While the “contempt of religion” law targeted Christian teenagers in this incident, the same article in the penal code, No 98, was also recently used to sentence two prominent Muslim figures to prison terms for stating opinions that were critical of strict Islamic views or certain religious practices that they opposed.

Islam Beheiri, who presented a talk show on the private television channel Al-Qahera Wal-Nas, was originally sentenced to three years in prison after Al-Azhar joined a case accusing him of “insulting Islam” after he criticised historical scholars used as references by extremist groups, such as Al-Qaeda and IS.

Beheiri’s sentence was later reduced to one year by the Appeals Court, and he continues to fight against the ruling in the Court of Cassation.

Fatma Naout, a writer, was also sentenced to three years in prison for “contempt of religion” after writing a post on Facebook in which she announced that she opposed the practice of slaughtering sheep on the occasion of the Muslim Sacrifice, or Adha Feast. The case is now being heard in the Appeals Court.

According to Mina Thabet, programme director at the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an NGO, the sentences against the four teenagers in Minya and their teacher are not only shocking because of the maximum penalty that they received, but also because the only teenager sent to a juvenile facility to serve out his term was actually the oldest of the four.

“The entire ruling is confusing and incomprehensible,” Thabet said. “Magdy was born in 1997, and he was sent to a juvenile facility for five years, while the three other defendants were born in late 1998, and were sentenced to five years of imprisonment with no bail, which means that they will be sent to a regular prison for adults.”

 The four are currently in hiding, and did not attend the sentencing session. Thabet said their lawyer will appeal against the sentence, “but he’s concerned the teenagers will have to go to jail during the appeal because the judge did not order bail to suspend the sentence during the legal process.”

One thing is certain, however, and that is that the four were around 15 years old when they went on a summer trip in 2014 with their teacher and decided to make fun of IS in a short video recorded by their teacher. The recording was not made for public use, and it simply shows four young people laughing as they imitate Muslims praying.

As soon as the prayer finishes, one of the teenagers acts as if he is chopping off the head of one of his colleagues, amid jokes from the others, clearly showing the contradiction between an act of submission to God and the brutality of beheading human beings.

The recording was made by the teacher, Younan, on his private phone. He later lost the memory card on the phone, which was found by a resident of the same village in April 2015.

As soon as word spread that “Christians were mocking Muslim prayers,” some villagers headed to the local church and other property owned by Christians, throwing stones and threatening to set the buildings on fire, according to the Egyptian Initiative on Personal Rights, a local human rights group that is investigating the case.

Police immediately arrested the four teenagers and their teacher in attempt to calm the residents. They then spent nearly two months in prison until prosecutors ordered their release pending trial. Village elders held a reconciliation meeting attended by the local police, Muslim scholars and the village priest. The decision reached at that meeting was that Younan must leave the village together with his wife and three children.

Thabet noted that the rise in the influence of political Islam groups over recent decades in Egypt has led to more cases of “contempt of religion” against Christians, especially in Upper Egypt.

“Regardless of the evidence, the courts usually issue harsh sentences against Christians in such cases, mainly in the hope of calming angry local public opinion,” Thabet said, adding that he had investigated 25 similar cases over the past five years.

At least 30 MPs, led by MP Emad Gad, have signed a petition demanding an amendment to the law on “contempt of religion” and warning of the consequences of the ruling on Coptic Christians who may feel they do not enjoy equal rights.

“Many Christians feel safer in Egypt since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi took office, and as a result of his calls to reform and renew religious discourse that has been dominated for years by extremists,” Gad said. “But many discriminatory practices remain the same on the ground, including this last ruling by the Bani Mazar court.”

Like other Coptic MPs, Gad pointed to the fact that “many prominent Islamic scholars, both moderate and extremist, regularly attack Christianity and Christians, dubbing them as infidels and insulting the main tenets of their religion. But they are not taken to court on charges of contempt of religion.”

On 26 February, six political parties, including the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Dostour, Socialist Alliance and Popular Trend, and 15 human rights organisations issued a statement criticising the ruling against the four teenagers and asking the prosecutor-general to appeal against the sentences.

“These sentences confirm that the call by the president to renew Islamic discourse has been limited to official statements, and they provide support for extremist ideas and groups,” the statement said. “Terrorism is not just bombs and explosives, but also ideas and practices that support terror, including the law on contempt of religion which aims at suppressing any views that confront the roots of terror in our heritage and ideas.”

The signatories asked parliament to immediately amend the existing laws and to abolish the vaguely worded article on “contempt of religion.”

 

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