Egyptian writer faces jail, triggering calls for legal reform

Sunday 29/05/2016
Fatma Naaout

Cairo - A writer’s 3-year jail sen­tence for a Facebook post criticising the Is­lamic practice of slaugh­tering animals for sacri­fice has opened the door for calls for legal reform.
An Egyptian appeals court upheld the sentence and 20,000-pound ($2,250) fine against Fatma Naaout after she was convicted of offend­ing Islam.
This was among a series of prison sentences handed down in recent months against writers, intellec­tuals and clerics charged with the same offence, which — apart from sending fear through intellectual circles — gives the impression that Egypt is regressing in terms of free­dom of speech.
“We are going back because these jail sentences do away with artistic creativity and free speech,” novel­ist Salwa Bakr said. “Some of the articles of the Penal Code are only used by closed-minded people to punish free thinking.”
Seven people have been sen­tenced to prison in the past three months after being accused of of­fending Islam. Those convicted include four Christian school stu­dents who conducted an Islamic State (ISIS)-style mock slaughter to criticise the brutality of the militant group. A novelist was sentenced to prison on charges of offending pub­lic morality in one of his novels. Also, a reform-minded TV preacher was sentenced to jail on charges of offending Islam.
Salafist preacher Mohamed Has­san is facing imprisonment for al­legedly offending a wife of Prophet Mohammad. Hassan, among the most moderate of Salafist preach­ers, was taken to court over part of a sermon in which he referred to the wife of the Prophet.
Naaout, 52, was charged after a lawyer claimed her criticism of the Islamic ritual of sacrificing animals during Eid al-Adha was an offence against the Islamic religion. In issu­ing the verdict against the column­ist and poet, judges applied Article 98 of the Penal Code, which stipu­lates up to five years of imprison­ment for people who “use religion to spread extremist ideas; humili­ate heavenly religions; insult the followers of these religions, or harm national unity”.
Naaout, who is free pending fur­ther appeal, said she meant none of these offences when she wrote on Facebook to express her view on the slaughter of animals during the feast.
“I only said it harms my feelings as a human being to see all these animals slaughtered at one and the same time, while some people cheer,” she told a Canadian news channel.
That personal views are being treated so harshly is leading to calls to change laws and end the impris­onment of intellectuals and writ­ers.
“These laws are turning into a tool for the suppression of free speech,” lawmaker Margret Azer said. “This is why they must be amended or abolished altogether.”
Farida al-Naqqash, a leftist writer who attended a recent meeting be­tween Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and intellectuals at the presidential palace, said those at the meeting asked Sisi to pre­vent the imprisonment of writers and abolish Article 98 of the Penal Code.
“This article brings us back to the medieval period,” Naqqash said. “It is a stick the enemies of freedom use to punish creativity and free thinking.”
When millions of Egyptians de­scended on the streets five years ago to demand the overthrow of autocratic president Hosni Mubarak, freedom was one of their principal demands. When they re­volted against the Muslim Broth­erhood regime almost two-and-a-half years later, Egyptians cited the Brotherhood’s use of religion to suppress opposition and freedom.
The same is being done now with the use of religion, observers say. They add that although al-Azhar, the highest seat of Islamic learn­ing in the country, is not directly involved in the jailing of writers, its silence is proof that it approves of the sentences.
“The general trend inside al- Azhar is a conservative one that sidelines all reformist views,” Naqqash said. “The religious es­tablishment reigns supreme in our country, even as it does not appear to be directly involved in trimming freedoms.”