HRW calls on Egypt to stop prosecuting atheists

Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a press release on Wednesday in which they called on Egyptian authorities to repeal legislation against blasphemy and refrain from prosecuting those who write or post materials of an atheistic nature.

The international organization asked the government to drop criminal charges against author Karam Saber, who is facing a lengthy prison sentence for his book of short stories, “Aiyn Allah?” (Where is God?).

The defendant and his lawyers are appealing a prison sentence of five years and a fine of LE1,000 (around $US140), which the Beba Misdemeanor Court (in Beni Suef governorate) issued him with on May 7, 2012. The appeal is scheduled for June 5.

Saber hopes the court will overturn this ruling on the grounds of its unconstitutionality. This is the last chance he has to appeal the verdict.

According to Egypt’s new constitution — which was approved by popular referendum in January this year — Article 64 guarantees absolute religious freedoms, while Article 65 guarantees freedom of thought, expression and opinion.

In April 2012 a lawsuit was filed against Saber by locals in Beni Suef who called on authorities to pull his book off the shelves and to imprison him on charges of blasphemy.

Although atheism is not classified as a criminal act in and of itself, spreading such thought in any form is officially classified as a crime.

According to Article 98(f) of the Egyptian Penal Code: Ridiculing the (Abrahamic) heavenly faiths, and the propagation of atheism in words, writing, or other means is punishable by sentences of up to five years in prison, and/or fines of up to LE1,000.

According to Article 160, the desecration of religious symbols is punishable by imprisonment of up to five years, and/or fines of up to LE500.

Article 161 stipulates that mocking a religion or religious rite in public is a crime carrying the same penalties as Article 160.

According to HRW’s Deputy Director in the Middle East and North Africa, “Freedom of expression is at the heart of a tolerant, democratic society.”

HRW called for Saber’s release in light of Egypt’s new constitutional rights and freedoms.

Regardless of Egypt’s constitutional liberties, in late March police in Alexandria announced they would form a specialized task force to arrest atheists in the city due to their anti-religious postings on Facebook.

In an earlier incident, a former Christian-turned-atheist, Alber Saber (not related to Karam Saber), fled the country in January 2013 after he was found guilty of blasphemy and disseminating atheist thought on his Facebook account. He had been sentenced to three years imprisonment in December 2012.

On May 20, the executive committee of the Egyptian Council of Churches announced that it would coordinate efforts among its five denominations to combat and confront atheist thought.

This church-based council also announced they would work with Mosques and Muslim clerics in interfaith committees with the objective of controlling and confronting atheism among members of both faiths. It is not known whether legal action will be taken against Egypt’s atheists.

Since the 2011 uprising, many Egyptian atheists have sought to express themselves more openly on social networking sites. Several atheist communities have since emerged online.