A journalist imprisoned for “spreading false news” in 2013 now faces blasphemy charges, on accusations relating to his conversion to Christianity over seven years ago, according to his defence lawyer.
Beshoy Armia, formerly known as Mohamed Hegazy, was sentenced by the Minya Misdemeanour Court to five years imprisonment in 2013. He had been covering Muslim Brotherhood protests that took place following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi.
According to Armia’s lawyer Karam Ghobrial, his client was originally convicted of broadcasting false information and promoting sectarian strife. It was alleged he produced video footage of “sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians in Minya for a foreign television channel”.
An appeal submitted by Ghobrial successfully reduced the prison sentence from five years to one year in prison. However, on the day Minya Criminal Court approved Armia for release he was detained leaving the court room by National Security who referred him to State Security Prosecution in Cairo.
Armia’s lawyer told Daily News Egypt that State Security – who usually are tasked with cases of espionage and terrorism – produced charges they say date back from 2009.
The charges are claimed to be a legal complaint submitted by two lawyers who maintain that the manner in which Armia converted to Christianity from Islam was blasphemous and “insulting to religion”.
Since December, Armia has been held pending investigations before a court date. According to Ghorbrial, State Security intend to keep him until 10 May, the maximum six-month period they are legally entitled to before he should be referred to court.
Armia converted from Islam to Christianity in 2007, however the court refused to have his conversion and change of name reflected on his national identification card, Ghobrial said. It is believed that a public campaign he launched to have his new name and religion recognised forms the basis of the new legal complaint.
Lawyer Ghobrial told Daily News Egypt that in both cases, Armia’s Christian religion and conversion were a key element in his unfair treatment. In Armia’s initial case, the first item the arresting officer wrote in the report was: “I was informed that a convert came to the city of Minya”. Ghobrial states Armia’s conversion played a huge role in his sentencing, “when this kind of thing is written in your report it works against you”.
Armia was also initially charged in 2013 with “endangering national security” and “portraying national security as weak to an international audience” but was acquitted of the charges. However, his lawyer is still appealing with Egypt’s Prosecutor General to revoke the original conviction of “spreading false news”. He maintains that it is incorrect Armia should be acquitted of the two security charges but be convicted of the third as they relied on the same legal basis.
Ghobrial told Daily News Egypt previously: “The obvious bias of the police officers responsible for the investigation and the officials assigned to issue the verdict is alarming… Many official papers in the case refer to Armia as a convert, which is against the law as it singles out the defendant according to his belief.”
“During the reign of the Muslim Brotherhood, we did not witness such level of unfairness. All journalists filmed and reported the clashes that the country witnessed after the ouster of Morsi, and none of them were charged with inciting sectarian strife,” he said.
Armia is one of several journalists who have been imprisoned since the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi in July 2013. Most notably, three Al Jazeera journalists who spent over 400 days in jail were released in February.
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Egypt as the second country in the world in 2014 for the number of journalists arrested, and fourth “biggest prison” for journalists.
The campaign group said said 46 journalists were arrested in Egypt throughout the year on pretexts such as “being Muslim Brotherhood sympathisers, endangering national unity or inciting violence or riots”.