(Beirut) – Egyptian authorities should quash blasphemy sentences handed down to four Christian children and their teacher over a video mocking ISIS. They should also revoke the penal code article that authorities use to prosecute blasphemy.

On February 25, 2016, a juvenile minor offenses court in Minya governorate sentenced three children to five years in prison and ordered the fourth placed in a juvenile facility for imitating Islamic prayer and the act of beheading in a 32-second video that their teacher filmed. The teacher was sentenced to three years in a separate trial.

“These children shouldn’t face prison for expressing themselves, even with an immature joke,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. “The continued prosecution of blasphemy cases in Egypt goes against the government’s claim to be promoting a more inclusive vision of religion.”

Two relatives of the children told Human Rights Watch that the teacher filmed the video during a trip in February 2015, shortly after a Libyan affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS, released a video showing their beheading of 21 abducted Christians, 20 of them from Minya.

The juvenile court, in the town of Bani Mazar in Minya, sentenced Mueller Edward, 17; Bassem Hanna, 16; and Alber Ashraf, 16, to five years in prison, while ordering Clinton Yousef, 17, placed in a juvenile facility.

Police arrested them on April 9, 2015, after other students circulated the video and reported it to another teacher in the school. Reports in local newspapers said the video led to anti-Christian protests, including attacks on Christian-owned businesses and an attempt to storm a church. Prosecutors charged the children under article 98(f) of Egypt’s penal code, which outlaws contempt of religion, as well articles 160 and 161, concerning the public conduct of religious rituals, even though the video was filmed in private. The trial began in October 2015.

The relatives of Edward and Ashraf told Human Rights Watch that the village mayor had called them in April and asked them to bring the youths to his house, where police were waiting to take them into custody. Edward’s father said that they thought this was intended as a temporary measure to calm tension in the village. He said that the government had deployed security forces in the village and around their houses for a few weeks to prevent further incidents.

Prosecutors interrogated the children after their arrest and ordered them detained pending investigation. The court renewed the pretrial detention orders until early June, when a judge ordered them released on a 10,000-pound bail (US$1,280) each. Their lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the families could barely afford to pay.

“They are just teenagers,” said Edward’s father. “They were psychologically troubled by the killings of Coptic Christians in Libya and went for entertainment. They didn’t deliberately intend any offense…. How can you try someone for mocking ISIS.”

The two relatives said that authorities detained the children in Bani Mazar Police Station, in the same cells as adults and criminal suspects, violating Egypt’s Child Law.

“They didn’t talk much about what happened inside,” Edward’s father said. “We were just happy they got out. My son got 98 percent in the high school exams, even though they were taking the exams inside the police station. He wants to study medicine. He’s loved by his Muslim colleagues. They were the first ones to warn us that something bad might happen.”

The teenagers’ lawyer said that a technical unit at Egypt’s Radio and Television Union, the government body that oversees public broadcasting, reviewed the video and submitted a biased report to the court that offered opinions instead of simply stating the video’s content. The lawyer asked the court several times to review the video to check the validity of the report’s claims, but the judge did not respond.

The two relatives said that the youths had to study at home after they were released because they were afraid to go to school.

Egypt’s Child Law, passed in 1996 and revised heavily in 2008, requires that children be detained separately from adults and also separated in detention based on the nature of their offense. The law says that officials who do not follow those requirements may be punished with prison and a fine. The law also requires the government to form a special prosecution and court system for children with social and educational staff. Egyptian authorities routinely flout these requirements without consequences, Human Rights Watch said.

The lawyer said that the teacher, Gad Yousef Younan, left his house with his wife and children after a “customary reconciliation” council decided to expel him from the village. Such reconciliation sessions are extra-legal tools typically overseen by officials from the security and religious establishments, and including senior family members that are used to resolve sectarian incidents. They frequently lead to illegal decisions, such as the forced eviction of Christian families. A 2015 report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent group, counted 45 instances in which reconciliation sessions were used following sectarian clashes between 2011 and 2015. The group stated that such councils foster a pattern of state failure to protect citizens’ rights.

More than 28 Egyptian rights groups and political parties condemned the rulings against the children and their teacher and called for the repeal of article 98(f), which has led to an increasing number of prosecutions for blasphemy under the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said it has documented at least nine cases in which 12 people were convicted for blasphemy-related charges in 2015, and that 11 cases remained pending. The cases involve both Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, and atheists.

Younan, who was charged under article 98(f), faced trial in a Bani Mazar minor offenses court, received a three-year sentence for contempt of religion but paid a 2000-pound (US$260) bail to remain free during his appeal. The lawyer said that the court did not address or order an investigation of the events that led to Younan’s forced eviction. Under article 63 of Egypt’s constitution, forced eviction is a crime that “does not lapse by prescription.”

The children received the maximum punishment under article 98(f), which ranges from a fine of between 500 and 1000 pounds ($70-130) up to a prison sentence of between six months and five years. The children and their teacher can appeal, but the children must turn themselves in to the police to do so. Ashraf’s relative said that the children were terrified from their detention experience in 2015 and do not want to experience it again.

Article 111 of the Child Law gives judges a wide range of disciplinary measures to use in children’s minor offenses cases instead of prison, but the judge chose the harshest penalty, the lawyer said. The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Egypt is a state party, guarantees the child’s right to freedom of expression and that all children should be treated equally and without discrimination, regardless of factors including their or their family’s religious background. The convention also requires that children should be detained and imprisoned only according to the law, as a last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period of time.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party, guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body that interprets the ICCPR, noted in 2011 that “[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant.”

“Mocking ISIS, or any religious group, with a childish joke is not a crime,” Houry said. “Instead of giving in to retrograde views on blasphemy, Egyptian authorities should protect freedom of expression.”