It has been barely a few weeks on the notorious prison sentences handed to Islamic scholar Islam Beheiri and writer Fatima Naoot for contempt or disdain of religion, and Egypt is again embroiled in heated controversy over the disdain issue and the legislation governing it. Only this time it involves no intellectuals or freethinkers; it involves four Coptic teenagers and their young teacher. All were handed prison sentences that range from three to five years for contempt of Islam.
The story goes back to less than a year ago when the teenagers Moler Atef, Albeir Ashraf, Bassem Amgad and Clinton Magdy from the village of Nassriya in Beni Mazar, Minya, in Upper Egypt, had while on a fun trip acted a half-minute sketch that was sarcastic of the Daesh beheading of 20 Copts and one Ghanaian Christian in February 2015. The sketch depicted the Islamists praying then beheading their victims. They were arrested together with the 35-year-old teacher Gad Youssef who captured the sketch on video on his mobile phone. The video was discovered by the Muslim villagers when they found the memory card Mr Youssef had lost.
Following two months in detention, the teenagers and the teacher were released on bail, but Mr Youssef was handed a three-year prison sentence on 30 January 2016. He is on the run, and his case is being appealed.
Some two weeks ago the Minya misdemeanours juvenile court sentenced three of the Coptic teenagers to five years in prison each, and a fourth to be placed in a juvenile institution for the same period of time, for contempt of Islam.
The children fled the village to some as yet unknown place or places. The families are in a state of shock, and fear that their children would never be able to complete their schooling or go on to higher studies, even though all of them are top ranking students in their classes. Three of them are secondary school students; the fourth is in university studying agriculture.
The children’s lawyer Maher Naguib announced he is appealing the court sentence.
Disregarding the beheading
Mr Naguib argues that the reports on which the judges based their judgement are inadequate. These reports describe in detail the contents of the culprit video footage; one was issued by the public prosecutor’s office in Beni Mazar, and the other by the State’s Broadcast and TV Union (BTVU). The details are not the same in the two reports, Mr Naguib says, claiming that the one issued by the BTVU includes additions not on the original footage. More important, both reports focused only on the manner in which the boys depicted the Muslim prayers; the BTVU report volunteers the opinion that: “the young men are ridiculing, in a sarcastic manner, Muslim prayers and the manner in which Muslims pray.”
The two official reports, according to Mr Naguib, omitted mentioning that the footage included the boys’ depiction of the Daesh beheading, thus taking the prayers out of context. Mr Naguib says he requested of the court to view the video footage first-hand, but the court declined, possibly on grounds that it already had two reports from two different States authorities. He said he will make his claim again in his appeal to the higher court.
The case has outraged Egyptian liberals, seculars and, predictably, Copts. The contempt of religion law came under fire, with many calling for its annulment. Apart from the claim that it undermines the freedom of expression upheld by the Constitution, it carries—owing to the fact that its articles are ambiguous and ill-defined—the dire threat of being used as a snare for anyone who dares venture on any discussion even remotely connected to religion. Watani explored the issue in detail in two articles: “The sword of Damocles that hangs over Copts”, 19 April 2015; and “Liberals vs disdain”, 7 February 2016.
No case against Alexandria ‘date preachers’
A recent case in Alexandria proves beyond doubt the liberals’argument that the contempt of religion law is indeed ambiguous and ill-defined, and leaves thus the cases to the discretion of the judges and the judicial authorities.
Judicial authorities in Alexandria last week decided that there was no case against the three Christian men now famous as the ‘date preachers’. The three men had been caught during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last year, July 2015, during which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset.
In a gesture of brotherly love, the 16-year-old Christian Fawzy Ussama Ibrahim had been handing out small packages of dried dates to people on the street at sunset, the time for breaking their fast. The packages included a message of greeting, signed with the website address of the church the young man belongs to. A bearded man caught Ibrahim and led him to the police station claiming they were using an innovative way to preach Christianity. Since the Egyptian law does not incriminate preaching Christianity, the bearded Muslim accused them of contempt of Islam. The young Christian called two friends, Stephen Boutros and Shady Said, who came to support him, but they were all arrested. The prosecution embarked on investigating the allegation made against them that they were using an innovative way of preaching Christianity and thus causing social sedition; they were released on bail three days later.
The recent decision that there is no case against the three Christians put an end to the entire matter. But it also, even if inadvertently, proved that the entire ill-defined charge of contempt of religion is finally left to the discretion of the judicial authorities.