The detention of a 31-year-old man was renewed for 15 days pending investigations into accusations of ‘contempt of religion,’ the Association of Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE) reported Monday.
His case comes amid ongoing controversy and demands to abolish legal penalties related to contempt of religion charges by human rights advocates and intellectuals in Egypt.
Al-Sayed Al-Naggar, the defendant, is the administrator of a page on Facebook calling for a “religious revolution”, according to lawyer at AFTE Fatma Serag. He was arrested last Thursday, after protesting at the headquarters of Al-Azhar.
“He called for the protest via Facebook, stating that Sahih Al-Bukhary’s Islamic teachings promote extremism and support ideologies of the ‘Islamic State’ group,” Serag told Daily News Egypt Monday.
Al-Naggar staged a one-man protest on Thursday in front of Al-Azhar and burnt the book of Al-Bukhary’s teachings. Some citizens turned him in to security forces, and Al-Gamaleya police station was called, after which police forces came to arrest him.
Al-Naggar was questioned on Friday night, in the absence of lawyers. “It is possible that he will face further charges related to religious discrimination and incitement against religion, according to what he told us today when we met him,” said Serag, adding that lawyers have not yet been handed copies of the investigation.
“The charge is unjust. The books he burned are not sacred books so he cannot be accused of contempt of religion,” she said.
According to article 98 of the Penal Code, religious contempt is defined as the exploitation of religion in order to promote extremist ideologies. The law punishes perpetrators of such actions by imprisonment ranging from six months to five years, and/or a fine of at least EGP 500, if the published content came “with a view to stir up sedition, disparage, or scorn any divine religion or its adherents, or an intolerance to national unity”.
In recent months, NGOs, lawyers, human rights advocates, political parties, writers, journalists and intellectuals in Egypt have rallied against the law numerous times, especially in the wake of the jailing of several intellectuals and public figures under this law.
Their calls intensified after a new court ruling issued on 25 February, sentencing four minors to a harsh five-year prison term in the governorate of Minya. The children had shot a video in which three of them were seen pretending to be performing prayers, while the fourth one appeared as an IS-like executor attacking the others. The case included a professor who participated with the children, though he was handed a lesser three-year sentence. The convicted minors are currently fugitives.
Moreover, the case of researcher and thinker Islam El-Beheiry’s imprisonment for criticising some religious teachings and attempting to renew religious discourse stirred major anger among supporters of freedom of expression.
Last January, writer Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years in prison. She was able to have her sentence commuted for an EGP 20,000 fine. Naoot had been charged with contempt of Islam for publishing a post on her Facebook account expressing personal views regarding the religious rituals related to the slaughter of animals during Eid Al-Adha.
Noot appealed her verdict, and the court is expected to look into it on 31 March. In a piece she wrote for Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper on Monday, Naoot slammed the state’s crackdown on freedoms of though, expression and creativity, stating that “I shall reserve the prison cell next to me for those who dare to object in the future”.
The Egyptian constitution, passed in 2014, stated in Articles 64 and 65 that freedom of belief is absolute, and that freedoms of thought and opinion are guaranteed. The constitution promotes the freedom of practicing religious rituals, and the right to express one’s opinion by any means of expression and publication.
However, Al-Azhar continues to file lawsuits against almost anyone who speaks of Islamic religious affairs, if the statements are deemed inappropriate by the Grand Imam. Moreover, charges can be filed against individuals and lawyers for published content, even if it is on personal pages or online accounts.