More face charges in Egypt’s escalating free speech and dissent crackdown

Today’s charges against yet another comedian for ‘defaming religion’ are part of an alarming new escalation of politically-motivated judicial harassment and arrests, Amnesty International has said.

In a mounting crackdown on freedom of expression, up to 33 people have been targeted within the last two weeks, with arrests and charges.

Some have been charged with what seem to be politically motivated or trumped-up criminal charges. Others are charged with ‘insulting the President’ or ‘defamation’ of religion for actions that should not be criminalized as they merely amount to the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.

“We are seeing arrests and charges for literally nothing more than cracking a few jokes. This is a truly alarming sign of the government’s increasing intolerance of any criticism whatsoever,” said Ann Harrison, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“There is no sign of this campaign of judicial harassment coming to an end.    The government is seriously redoubling its efforts to stamp out freedom of expression.”

Those targeted have included the country’s most famous political satirist Bassem Youssef, opposition activists, bloggers, and a high profile opposition politician.

Today, stand-up comedian Ali Qandil was interrogated at the public prosecutor’s office on charges of ‘defamation of religion’ on Bassem Youssef’s satirical television show. Qandil denied insulting Islam, emphasizing that he poked fun at the exploitation of religion, rather than the religion itself.  He was released on bail.

Some have been targeted for supposed crimes that occurred months ago, or in one case more than a year ago. Most have been released on bail but will remain under investigation.

“The government is trying to destroy freedom of expression when it should be protecting the peaceful dissent and political participation that brought it into power,” said Ann Harrison.The charge sheets:

Bassem Youssef: ‘Egypt’s Jon Stewart’ and host of satirical show ‘Al-Bernameg’.Turned himself in on 31 March after a warrant was issued for his arrest, and was released on bail for 15,000 Egyptian pounds.The charges: A range of accusations that include “insulting the president” and “defamation of religion”. Investigations are ongoing.The crime: Youssef’s show frequently pokes fun at the Egyptian authorities and the exploitation of religion for political ends. Most recently, he mocked President Morsi’s choice of graduation hat during a ceremony in Pakistan and his poor command of English. Ali Qandil:Stand-up comedian.Turned himself in for questioning on 3 April 2013 after a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was released on bail after questioning.The charges: Defamation of religion.  Investigations are ongoing.The crime: Qandli appeared on Bassem Youssef’s show and made jokes about the way in which religion is practised by some in Egypt, using the example of Friday prayers and the call to prayer.Hamdi Al-Fakharany: Former parliamentarian and known opposition politician from Mahalla.Known for exposing corruption during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak and for his political run-ins with the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamdi Al-Fakharany was arrested on 26 March 2013 and detained incommunicado for 36 hours.  He has been released on bail for 50, 000 Egyptian pounds.The charges: Inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood during protests commemorating the second anniversary of the ‘25 January Revolution’ in Mahalla, during which protesters criticized the President and ruling party.The crime: Amnesty International fears that the case against Al-Fakharany may be politically motivated and is unaware of any evidence that he used or advocated violence. Additionally, no investigations have taken place into Hamdi Al-Fakharany’s complaint that he was beaten by supporters of the President during demonstrations against the Constitutional Declaration in November 2012. Ahmed Anwar: Video bloggerPolice officers went to his home to arrest him on 17 March 2013. He is due to face trial on 4 May.The charges: “Insulting the Ministry of Interior”The crime: Posting a video online making fun of police officers giving an award to an actress, calling them “the ministry of belly dancers”.  The comical video, showing police officers dancing, criticizes police brutality and impunity for human rights abuses.  The video was posted on his blog over a year ago, in March 2012.Cairo activistsTrial proceedings have been initiated against 12 people, who are expected to appear in court on 9 May 2013. Among the accused are prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, his sister Mona Seif Al Islam who launched the No to Military Trials initiative, and Ahmed Abdallah, a leading activist with the 6 April Youth Movement.The charges: Charges relate to the burning of the headquarters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq in May 2012.  Ahmed Shafiq has already publicly withdrawn his complaint about the fire.  Alaa Abdel Fattah and four other opposition activists are also facing charges relating to protests at the headquarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo on 22 March 2013.The crime: Amnesty International fears the charges are politically motivated due to their opposition activism.Alexandria activistsLawyer and well-known opposition activist Mahinour Masri was among 13 people arrested on 29 March 2013 in the context of a sit-in by lawyers at an Alexandria police station. They were released the following day, but investigations are ongoing.The charges: Insulting government employees on duty, insulting officials, and attempting to break into a police station. The crime: Amnesty International believes that Mahinour Masri’s arrest and the charges she faces are trumped-up and politically motivated due to her opposition activism, her work to expose human rights violations, and her defence of victims.