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Egypt: Female Writer Sentenced to Three Years’ Imprisonment for Insulting Islam

(Apr. 5, 2016) On March 31, 2016, the Cairo Court of Appeals upheld the finding of a court of first instance that Fatima Naout, an Egyptian writer and thinker, was guilty of the crime of insulting religion under article 98(f) of the country’s Penal Code. (The Court Upheld the Imprisonment Decision of Egyptian Writer Fatima Naout, BBC NEWS (Mar. 31, 2016) (in Arabic).)  Article 98(f) provides for a punishment of “imprisonment for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years” for “whoever makes use of religion in propagating, either by words, in writing, or by any other means, extreme ideas for the purpose of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting a heavenly religion or a related sect, or damaging national unity.”  (Penal Code, 1937 (as last amended by Law No. 95, 2003), art. 98(f), MOHAMOON.COM (in Arabic).)

The first instance court had sentenced Naout to three years in prison and a fine of EGP20,000 (about US$2,258) on January 26, 2016, based on statements Naout had made condemning the mass slaughter of animals during the Muslim celebration of Eid al-Adha (an annual celebration involving animal sacrifice). The Court of Appeals rendered its decision in absentia, because Naout was in Canada attending a conference. (Writer Fatima Naout to File Fresh Appeal Against ‘Contempt of Religion’ Sentence, EGYPT INDEPENDENT (Apr. 1, 2016).)

Reactions to the Court of Appeal Decision

Naout dismissed the court decision, denying that she had intended to insult Islam and stating that her comments did not violate Sharia law (Islamic law).  Naout is not the first public figure to have been found guilty of violating article 98(f).  TV host Islam al-Beheiry was sentenced to five years in prison for the same crime, and writer Karam Saber received the same punishment when his collection of short stories entitled Where’s God? was judged by the court as promoting atheism.  (Id.)

Human rights activists also criticized the Court of Appeals decision against Naout and article 98(f), calling for repeal of the provision. Liberal journalists, such as Khaled Montasser, have argued that such court decisions that cause thinkers and writers to be imprisoned confirm the fact that “Egypt is not a civil state but a theocratic state par excellence.” (Khaled Montasser Criticizes the Court Decision to Imprison Naout, ALBAWABA (Apr. 1, 2016).) Gamal Eid, Director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said Naout’s case should not have even made it to court, and claimed that the state is turning a blind eye to civil rights in defense of religious extremism.  (Law on Insulting Religions: A Human Right and Religious Debate in Egypt, AL-RAI (Mar. 31, 2016) (in Arabic).)

Finally, Mohamed Salmawy, writer and advisor to the Arab Writers Union, has argued that article 98(f) is in clear violation of article 65 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014. (Mahmoud Mourad, Egyptian Poet Goes on Trial Accused of Contempt Islam, REUTERS (Jan 28, 2016).) Article 65 states that “[f]reedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed” and that “[e]very person shall have the right to express his/her opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication.”  (Constitution of the Arab Republic of Egypt (2014), State Information Service website (unofficial translation).)

Possible Next Steps

Under the Egyptian Code of Criminal Procedure, the Court of Appeals decision on Naout’s case is not final. She can file a petition before the Court of Cassation, requesting a retrial. (Code of Criminal Procedure No. 150 of 1950, art. 446, E-LawyerAssistance website (in Arabic).)   The Court of Cassation is the highest judicial body in the Egyptian court system and has the authority to scrutinize the decisions of the criminal courts.

The Court of Cassation will void a sentence if it finds that there was a breach of law made during the trial process or in the interpretation of the Criminal Code by the lower court judges and will return the case to the criminal court to be adjudicated by different judges. The prosecution and the defense each have the authority to appeal a decision of a criminal court.  (Id.)