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The criminal prosecution of the internationally known Lebanese singer and composer Marcel Khalifa is a blatant violation of his right to freedom of expression.

"We hope that the judge will use international human rights law as one basis for rejecting the charges against Marcel Khalifa," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "This case is a direct legal challenge to the right to freedom of expression in Lebanon. The court has the opportunity to establish an important legal precedent by issuing a verdict in Khalifa's favor."

On October 2, the newly appointed investigating judge, Abdel Rahman Shihab, recommended that prosecutors bring criminal charges against Khalifa for "insulting religious values by using a verse from the chapter of Joseph from the Holy Koran in a song." On October 3, senior Sunni Muslim clerics in Lebanon ruled that singing verses from the Koran was "absolutely banned and not accepted." Under article 473 of Lebanon's penal code, blasphemy in public is punishable by one month to one year in prison. Article 474 of the penal code authorizes imprisonment of six months to three years for publicly insulting a religion.

Khalifa, who is a Christian, recorded a song in his 1995 album "The Arabic Coffee Pot" that was based on a 1992 poem of the prominent Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish. The poem adapted this verse from the story of Yousef (Joseph) in the Koran: "O my father, I saw eleven stars and the sun and the moon bowing before me in homage."

The highest Sunni Muslim religious authority in Lebanon, Grand Mufti Sheikh Muhamed Rashid Qabbani, has maintained repeatedly that Khalifa is guilty of blasphemy for singing a verse from the Koran. Sheikh Qabbani said on October 21: "There is a limit to freedom of expression. One limit is that it should not infringe on people's religious beliefs." Mahmoud Darwish, whose poem Khalifa set to music, criticized the legal proceedings in an interview with the Lebanese daily newspaper al-Diyar on October 10. "Fundamentalism is in the process of stifling culture and creation in the Arab world," he said. "I say it is shameful. I am ashamed. We should all be ashamed. If Marcel Khalifa is found guilty, it will be an insult to culture."

Human Rights Watch said today that Khalifa's recordings and performances are protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a treaty to which Lebanon is a state party. Article 19 of the ICCPR grants to everyone the right to freedom of expression. It further states that "this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice." As a state party to the ICCPR, Lebanon is obligated to respect and ensure that all individuals in its territory and subject to its jurisdiction enjoy the right to freedom of expression.

The criminal prosecution of the famous performer has caused an uproar among intellectuals and lawyers in Lebanon. At meetings and rallies they have vigorously supported Khalifa's right to freedom of expression.

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