Author sentenced to jail for blasphemy in story collection
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CAIRO: Author Karam Saber will schedule an appeal session for Saturday after the Misdemeanor Court of Appeal upheld Thursday a five year imprisonment sentence, according to Al-Ahram Gate.

Saber is accused on on charges of “insulting the divine” in his stories, Al-Ahram Gate reported. The Attorney-General had sent a request to his undersecretary in Beni Suef governorate to suspend the sentence.

“The stories in my collection do not undermine the divine or any religion … But I criticize in them our use of religion and twisting it to serve personal purposes,” Youm7 reported Saber as saying in a seminar at the January 2014 Cairo International Book Fair.

Citizens in Beba town in Beni Suef filed a legal complaint against Saber in April 2011, claiming that his 2010 short sorties collection Where Is God? promotes atheism. A court handed him the maximum penalty set out in the Penal Code for this charge, which is five years in prison, in May 2013 and his sentence was upheld in March 2014.

“The 2014 constitution limits penalties against authors to fines and prohibits jailing them in this kind of cases. A physical penalty against authors is completely unacceptable, they should not be treated like criminals,” Mohamed Mahmoud, lawyer at the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), told The Cairo Post.

Beba District Court lacks geographical jurisdiction over the case because the book that was printed and published in Cairo, the ANHRI lawyers stated in their defense memorandum.

According ANHRI’s memorandum, both Al-Azhar and Beni Suef Coptic Diocese notified the court of their denunciation over the book.

“[The book] undermines all doctrinal, intellectual, and moral values, distorts and fragments the fabric of the Egyptian society with all its Islamic and Christian elements,” Al-Azhar stated.

“The diocese rejects mockery of the provisions of [religious] laws set out by the defendants in the books in question,” the diocese undersecretary said.

Saber’s take on his trial

“It is painful that ignorance and backwardness have taken us to this point where a judge who is ignorant of literature and art rules over literary work that he did not read. Rather, he relies on futile interpretations and narrow visions that judges innovators for the inclinations of their protagonists and seeks assistance from Al-Azhar and the Church,” Saber said at the book fair seminar.

“[In the stories], I expose the fake religious discourse and detect the scale of contradictions in a patriarchal society that claims religiousness while it practices the opposite, especially in terms of oppressing women. I pose simple questions that seek God amid all this absurdity we are living in,” Saber said.

Saber claimed in March 2014 that a sheikh, who works with the Ministry of Endowment in Beba and is affiliated with the Islamist current, is behind the lawsuit, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm.

Saber said that farmers from the village from which the sheikh in question comes had won a case against the Ministry of Endowment, entitling them to a piece of land on which the ministry had control, according to Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“This sparked the sheikh’s anger and filed a lawsuit against me after the villagers hosted me in a seminar and one of them obtained the story collection,” Saber said.

Solidarity from human rights organizations

“Although Egyptian authorities claim blasphemy laws maintain social peace, they often have the opposite effect,” Human Rights Watch deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork said in a Thursday statement.

“Prosecuting people for beliefs peacefully expressed validates, rather than combats, intolerance,” Stork added.

In a Thursday statement, Amnesty International called on Egypt to commit to its international obligations to protect freedom of expression. “No person should be prosecuted for showing disdain or contempt for religion. International human rights law protects expression of ideas even when they are considered offensive or insulting,” it announced.

The two human rights organizations called on Egypt to amend its Penal Code to protect freedom of expression in compliance with the human rights conventions to which Egypt is a party.

Since the complaint was filed, Saber received widespread support from Egyptian intellectuals, writers, and artists.

In September 2013, 46 Egyptian human rights organizations released a statement in solidarity with Saber and expressed their grave concern that the public prosecution accepts legal complaints from individuals “who bear no status or interest from their complaints except gagging freedom of expression.”

Increasing blasphemy cases

In February, a Cairo Misdemeanor Court sentenced an Egyptian Shiite to five years in prison n charges of blasphemy and defaming the Prophet Mohamed’s companions.

“We have documented 48 cases of vigilante harassment and judicial prosecution from January 2011 to the end of 2013,” a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Ishak Ibrahim said in a February statement.

The number of blasphemy cases before courts increased from three in 2011 to 12 in 2012 and 13 in 2013. Courts convicted 27 of 42 defendants tried on defamation charges, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) statement.

Three defendants were acquitted and charges against 11 defendants were rejected due to “lack of standing,” the statement said. Articles in the Penal Code related to blasphemy in effect lead to citizens being tried for their religious beliefs.

“This violates freedom of religion, belief, opinion and expression—fundamental human rights protected by the new Constitution and international conventions ratified by Egypt,” the statement said.

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