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***The below news release was updated to correct that four people were sentenced for blasphemy in Luxor governorate in June 2014.

(New York) – An Egyptian minor offenses court on January 10, 2015, sentenced a student accused of writing Facebook posts that insulted Islam to three years in prison. The sentence, one of several handed down on blasphemy charges in recent years, came amid a coordinated government crackdown on perceived atheists.

Authorities arrested the student, Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, with a group of other people at a café in the Beheira governate in November 2014, the 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 and North Africa director. “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 December 14, and one of the country’s highest Sunni authorities issued a survey that purported to document what religious officials described as a worrying number of atheists in Egypt.

Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told the Agence France Press (AFP) news agency 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, 2015, and his bail has been set at 1,000 Egyptian pounds (US$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, documented by the EIPR, have concerned alleged insults against Islam, though at least two men have received prison sentences on charges of insulting Christianity. Cases of alleged blasphemy often arise out of personal or unrelated disputes.

Recently, the authorities have targeted perceived atheists. Police said the café shut down on December 14, 2014, in Cairo’s Abdeen district was popular with suspected atheists, and District Administrative Chief Gamal Mohie told the Mada Masr news website that the coffee shop was unlicensed and “popularly known as a place for Satan worship, rituals and dances.” He said police had raided the café in November. The Al-Monitor news site reported that a previous owner said he closed the café and leased it to a new owner in June because security forces had targeted the café as a hub for political activists.

On December 10 the Dar al-Ifta, a Justice Ministry wing that issues religious edicts, released a survey claiming that Egypt was 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 reported.

In March, the Interior Ministry official in charge of security in Alexandria said he would form a task force to arrest atheists. In June, following the election of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s youth and religious endowments ministries announced a joint campaign to confront the spread of atheism.

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.

In many blasphemy cases, according to the EIPR, government prosecutors and private plaintiffs have invoked article 98(f) of the penal code, which prescribes a sentence of six months to five years and a fine of 500 to 1,000 Egyptian pounds for anyone who uses religion to propagate “extremist ideas” to incite strife, insult a monotheistic religion, or damage national unity.

Blasphemy prosecutions continued in 2014. On December 27, prosecutors filed charges against author Fatima Naaout for allegedly writing sarcastic comments on her Facebook wall about the slaughter of animals for the Eid al-Adha holiday. 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 minor offenses court sentenced Kirollos Shawki Atallah to six years for posting photos on Facebook deemed defamatory to Islam. A minor offenses 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 Quran at a Lawyers Syndicate meeting.

In December 2012, a blogger, Albert Saber, was sentenced to three years in prison. He was accused under article 98(f) and other provisions of establishing web pages including “Screwing the Gods” and “Egyptian Atheists.” Critics had also claimed he posted the film “Innocence of Muslims,” a film considered anti-Islamic, on his website. He was released on bail pending his appeal and fled Egypt.


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