Commitment to Egypt’s New Constitution Questioned after ‘Blasphemy’ Charge

Christian on trial for ‘liking’ Facebook page run by converts from Islam.

Knights of the Cross Facebook site. (Morning Star News screen-grab)

Knights of the Cross Facebook site. (Morning Star News screen-grab)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – Charges of “blasphemy” against a Christian in Egypt for “liking” a Facebook page run by converts from Islam call into question the government’s commitment to a new constitution guaranteeing freedom of belief and thought, rights activists said.

Kerolos Shouky Attallah, of Al-Mahamid village near Luxor, is accused of violating Article 98F of the Egyptian Penal Code for “liking” an Arabic-language Facebook page administered by an anonymous group of Christian converts known as the Knights of the Cross. According to Attallah’s attorney, Mohamed Ahmed Abd-Alaal, the 29-year-old Christian did not make any comments on the site, share any of the postings or upload anything to it.

Safwat Samaan, chairman of Nation Without Borders, a human rights and development group headquartered in Luxor, said the accusation against Attallah was ludicrous.

“It’s unbelievable. He is being accused just for ‘liking’ a page on Facebook,” said Samaan.

The Knights of the Cross Facebook page was designed to provide Arabic-speaking converts from Islam – many forced to live alone and in hiding – a cyber-place to encourage each other and safely discuss the Bible. Members also post essays about Christian apologetics and entries about perceived errors and conflicts in the Koran. Anyone can read the posts, and sections about the Koran are often met with profanity-laced outpourings of anger from Muslims.

In one satirical entry, someone posted a cartoon mocking hard-core Salafi Muslims for being hypocritical. Attallah had not “liked” the cartoon, but Muslim villagers in Al-Mahamid, friends of Attallah’s Muslim Facebook friends, saw the cartoon as an indictment of Islam, increasing their anger against him for liking the site, according to his lawyer and Samaan.

On May 28, Muslims printed and distributed leaflets demanding vengeance against Attallah. One leaflet read, “You will not be men if you don’t kick him out of your village,” according to Samaan.

In response, Attallah “unliked” the page, but the next day villagers attacked his house. When police came, they arrested Attallah and charged him with Egypt’s version of a blasphemy law – showing “disdain” for a heavenly religion. All the Muslims who attacked Attallah’s house were released without charge.

“The Egyptian law only goes one way, only against people who are innocent,” Samaan said. “Who should be in jail, someone for pressing ‘like’ or the person who is going around burning and attacking people?”

According to the Egyptian penal code, violation of Article 98F is punishable by “detention for a period of not less than six months and not exceeding five years, or paying a fine of not less than 500 pounds and not exceeding 1,000 pounds.”

A violation of the article is described as an act that advocates or spreads “extremist thoughts with the aim of instigating sedition and division,” or an act that shows disdain or contempt for “any of the heavenly religions or the sects belonging thereto.” Using religion in a way that harms “national unity or social peace” is also a violation.

On Jan. 14 and 15, Egyptians passed a referendum on a new constitution that, according to supporters, ensures the basic rights of free speech and belief for Egyptians – or at least for those belonging to approved branches of the three “heavenly religions” as delineated in the Koran. But the existence of a blasphemy law in Egypt in itself, human rights activists said, is a violation of Egypt’s new constitution, which was supposed to take effect on Jan. 18.

“According to the constitution, Kerolos should not be in jail, because it allows freedom of speech and expression, but the judges are not using the new constitution and are still working with the old law,” Samaan said. “They are basically ignoring the new constitution.”

Samaan said the constitution is like a beautiful frame placed around an ugly photograph to make it seem better; the constitution is merely an attempt to give the state credibility.

“It’s just a beautiful frame, but it is not really for use,” he said.

Historically, Samaan said, judges in Luxor Province in Upper Egypt have been very aggressive in prosecuting blasphemy cases, handing down sentences well above statutory limits. Last June, a Luxor Province judge issued a sentence of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,270), against Demyana Abd Al-Nour, an elementary school teacher from Sheikh Sultan Primary School in the village of Al-Edisat, accused of committing blasphemy. The fine was well in excess of the amount allowed by law and Al-Nour’s ability to pay.

She has been living in hiding in Europe for almost a year as her case winds through the appeals process. A hearing was scheduled for June 1, but the judge assigned to the case did not appear for reasons undisclosed to media. Her next hearing is scheduled for Sunday (June 15).

Human rights groups say that the blasphemy law is used disproportionately against the Coptic minority of Egypt. A study released in May 2013 by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) found that 41 percent of blasphemy cases taken to court from Jan. 25, 2011, to Dec. 31, 2012, were filed against Christians, who make up only about 10 percent of Egypt’s population of more than 85 million people.

Attallah was held in jail for four days until presented to a judge for his first hearing. Samaan said authorities questioned him without the presence of any lawyer. During the hearing, a group of Islamists brought around 20 lawyers to the court to support their claims of blasphemy, but the judge ordered the attorneys out of the courtroom and postponed the case.

A new hearing date was scheduled for June 24, and Attallah returned to prison. Because a judge never signed an order for him to be held for an additional 15 days, he is now technically being held illegally, Samaan said. He said the judge likely postponed the case because there was no evidence presented against Attallah during the hearing.

Abd-Alaal, Attallah’s attorney, agreed.

“There is no physical proof of a crime,” Abd-Alaal said. “The act of which he is being accused did not happen.”

Before Attallah even set foot in the courtroom, Islamists started an attack on the village of Al-Mahamid. First they turned off electricity to the village. As people began filling out of their homes to escape the summer heat, the Islamists set fire to a Coptic-owned carpentry supply store.

The fire spread to a Christian-owned clothing store and then to a three-wheel motorcycle taxi known as a tuk-tuk that was parked nearby. At least three stores were destroyed. There were no casualties in the attack, but Abd-Alaal said things are still very strained in Al-Mahamid.

“The atmosphere is very tense; anyone could use it to start sectarian violence,” he said.

Samaan said numerous attorneys, including Copts, turned down the case. Most blasphemy cases are deemed as hopeless, problematic and even dangerous for the defending attorney. Abd-Alaal, a Muslim, said he took the case ultimately because he thought Attallah was innocent.

“A lot of other lawyers refused the case because they thought they would lose,” he said. “I accepted the case because I have faith. I believe he is innocent from all the evidence I have.”

Abd-Alaal said he expects a verdict in the case at the next hearing.

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