Egypt’s worrying rise in criminal blasphemy cases

Criminal “defamation of religion” charges must be dropped in a number of cases across Egypt, Amnesty International said today after a teacher was convicted for insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad in the classroom. A Luxor court on Tuesday fined Coptic Christian teacher Dimyana Obeid Abd Al Nour 100,000 Egyptian pounds (approx. US$14,000) for allegedly insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad during one of her classes. It also referred compensation claims to civil court. Her criminal conviction bodes ill for others in Egypt who have been facing trial on similar charges which the organization said are aimed at criminalizing criticism of or insult to religious beliefs. “Slapping criminal charges with steep fines and, in most cases, prison sentences against people for simply speaking their mind or holding different religious beliefs is simply outrageous,” said Philip Luther, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Director. “So-called ‘defamation of religion’ charges should not be used as a pretext to trample over people’s right to freedom of expression and conscience, and all such charges should be dropped, and the resulting convictions overturned.”In another recent case, a 25-year-old Coptic Christian lawyer, Rumany Mourad, was also convicted on the charge of “defamation of religion”. On 1 June a court in Assiut – 360km south of Cairo – sentenced him in absentia to one year in prison, in addition to a 500 Egyptian pounds fine and 10,000 Egyptian pounds (US$1,400) in compensation to the plaintiffs. The case against him is based on a complaint lodged by two fellow lawyers in Assiut, who accused him of insulting Islam during a private conversation they had with him at the library of the Lawyer’s Syndicate in Assiut in July 2012. One of the plaintiffs had apparently asked Rumany Murad’s opinion on “miracles” in the Bible. Despite trying to avoid the question, a few days later he discovered he had been accused of “defamation of religion”. On at least two previous occasions, in an online debate and in person, Assiut lawyers had warned Rumany Murad to keep his views to himself after he had expressed disappointment at the results of the first round of presidential elections which saw the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi – who went on to become President – pitted against Ahmed Shafiq. When his court case opened on 27 April, Rumany Murad’s lawyer did not attend because of threats to his safety. Lawyers from the Construction and Development Party, the political wing of the Gamaa Islamiya Islamist group, warned Rumany Murad on the safety of any lawyer attending court proceedings in Assiut.Hearings in the case were reportedly characterized by a heavy presence of Islamist lawyers and their supporters. During the second hearing on 11 May, one of the lawyers allegedly asked the judge to refer the case back to the prosecution to demand the application of the death penalty. Some of those present to hear the sentencing on 1 June reportedly complained that the punishment had been too lenient. He is expected to appeal his in absentia conviction. His lawyers are seeking to transfer his trial to Cairo given concerns that the general climate in the court in Assiut is not conducive to upholding fair trial guarantees, including the right to adequate defence. Before the latest two convictions, Amnesty International had received numerous recent reports of others accused and convicted of blasphemy in Egypt. Bloggers and media professionals whose ideas are “deemed offensive” as well as Coptic Christians – particularly in Upper Egypt – make up the majority of those targeted.   Another teacher from the Upper Egypt governorate of Souhag is facing trial on charges of “defamation of religion” on 25 June.