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'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.

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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.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

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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. 

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