'Insulting religion': Blasphemy sentence in Egypt sends a chill

Blasphemy cases are on the rise in Egypt. Passage of the draft constitution, with a clause prohibiting insulting prophets, could result in more decisions like today's sentence.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters
Computer science graduate Alber Saber gestures inside the cage during his trial in Cairo in September. Saber, who comes from a Christian family, was convicted for a video he made in which he criticized organized religion.

An Egyptian court sentenced Alber Saber to three years in jail today for insulting religion. Such blasphemy prosecution cases, on the rise since the revolution and almost uniformly criticized by civil rights activists in Egypt, may only increase if the draft constitution is approved this week. 

Such cases are currently brought under laws that prohibit insulting religion. There is no such blasphemy clause in the previous constitution, but the new charter, which will be put to a vote Dec. 15, includes a clause that prohibits insulting "prophets" – which would strengthen blasphemy cases, and make overturning such convictions on appeal much harder. Lawyers have previously successfully overturned blasphemy convictions by arguing they were unconstitutional. 

Mr. Saber, who comes from a Christian family, was convicted for a video he made in which he criticized organized religion. Civil rights advocates say his conviction is a violation of freedom of expression and is deeply troubling.

"It's a heavy sentence, and any independent court looking into the case would release him because there are huge procedural mistakes … never mind that this is actually a crime that shouldn't be on the books to begin with," says Amr Gharbeia, civil liberties director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

Bail ignored

In a somewhat unusual step, the judge ruled that Saber could be released on bail today until his appeal is heard. But though his lawyers paid the bail, about $162, police returned him to prison instead of releasing him. Lawyer Ahmed Ezzat says he will attempt to secure Saber's release tomorrow. 

Saber was arrested in September, several days after protests erupted at the US embassy in Cairo and elsewhere in the Muslim world when an American-made film mocking the prophet Mohammed was publicized.

According to his lawyer and family, his mother called police when an angry mob gathered outside his home in a working-class area on the outskirts of Cairo and accused him of burning the Quran and insulting Islam. The crowd threatened to kill him and burn down his house, they said.

When the police arrived, they arrested Saber instead of protecting him from the mob. Police searched his home without a warrant, and found a video in which he criticizes organized religion. The prosecutor used this as evidence to charge him with insulting religion under a vague clause in Egypt's penal code that criminalizes the denigration of religion. Mr. Ezzat says the prosecutor incited other prisoners to beat Saber after he was imprisoned by telling his cellmates that Saber was connected to the anti-Islam film. 

Mr. Gharbeia says the case should have been thrown out because the evidence against him was obtained without a warrant. But his lawyers also challenged the constitutionality of the law against blasphemy, arguing that it was so vague that citizens couldn't be expected to know when they were breaking the law. Right advocates also say the vague wording allows it to be abused, and it is often used against minorities and those with opinions contrary to the majority. They further say such clauses limit freedom of expression.

Blasphemy cases have been on the rise since the uprising that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Rights advocates say the article in the draft constitution prohibiting insulting prophets will further limit freedom of expression and likely lead to more blasphemy cases and convictions. 

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