Noted Convert from Islam in Egypt Wins Partial Appeal but Remains in Jail

Two of three charges dropped against Bishoy Armia Boulous, formerly Mohammed Hegazy.

Bishoy Armia Boulous, previously known as Mohammed Hegazy. (Morning Star News)

Bishoy Armia Boulous, previously known as Mohammed Hegazy. (Morning Star News)

ISTANBUL, Turkey (Morning Star News) – A noted convert in Egypt who was sentenced to five years in prison for documenting attacks on Christians has won a partial victory on appeal, but he remains in jail because of prior blasphemy charges.

An appeals judge on Sunday (Dec. 28) found Bishoy Armia Boulous, 31, previously known as Mohammed Hegazy, not guilty on a charge of spreading information meant to “cause harm or damage to the public interest” and not guilty on the closely related charge of spreading false news “bound to weaken” Egypt’s “prestige” or harm the “country’s national interests.”

Boulous, however, was found guilty of an unidentified charge, likely that of inciting sectarian strife, and sentenced to one year in prison. The appeals judge did not identify the specific article of Egypt’s Criminal Code that Boulous was found guilty of violating, but according to the law he will do so in the official sentencing documents set to be issued in two weeks.

Because Boulous spent more that a year in prison waiting for his trial to take place and his appeal to be heard, he should have been released at the conclusion of Sunday’s hearing, but instead he was held without an opportunity to post bail because of blasphemy charges filed against him five years ago by two Islamist lawyers.

Attorneys believe the state, in effect, has taken an active role in punishing Boulous for his conversion by holding him on charges past their statutory limit, and doing so without any possibility of bail.

Karam Ghobriel, one of Boulous’s attorneys, said there is “no hope” the Interior Ministry will release Boulous any time soon.

“There is no hope at all, because he is still in jail for the investigation of his blasphemy case, which on Jan. 22 will have been going on for six months, but they will find other reasons to keep him in jail for sure,” Ghobriel said. “After Jan. 22, we will know when this case is going to go to court.”

Ghobriel filed a complaint about the denial of bail for Boulous in the blasphemy case. By comparison, the incendiary Muslim cleric Abo Islam, who was charged with blasphemy for ripping up and burning a Bible during a 2012 protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, was allowed to remain free during his trial and appeal. Islam was eventually sentenced to five years in prison. He is the only Muslim in Egypt to be convicted of blaspheming Christianity.

Since Boulous’ initial arrest on Dec. 2, 2013, Ghobriel and human rights activists familiar with the case have stated that the government was targeting Boulous during the time of his arrest. Up until now the accusations have been difficult to prove, but internal documents of the Ministry of Interior (MOI) obtained by Morning Star News show that the MOI employs informants to follow converts from Islam. One such informant was following Boulous in Minya when he was arrested on Dec. 2, 2013.

While I was at the police station, one of our secret sources called and told us that one of the converts, who is called Bishoy Armia Boulous, whose previous name was Mohammed Hegazy, is present at the Agricultural Association in Minya, and covering some of the religious violence and persecution of Copts,” a Lt. Amer Hassan reported. “Realizing how dangerous the situation is, I was accompanied with Officer Ahmed Moukhtar to check the situation, and went to the Agricultural Association.”

Hassan arrested Boulous at a café at the association in Minya, 260 kilometers (161 miles) south of Cairo, with a camera, four flash drives and a notebook. Officials claimed Boulous was working for The Way TV, a Coptic Christian-owned, U.S.-based religious television channel that broadcasts into Egypt via satellite, and was contributing to a “false image” that there was violence against Christians in Minya.

In December 2013, Christians in Minya were caught in the middle of a well-documented spree of violence against them, including public kidnappings, assaults, destruction of property and attacks on several church buildings that mobs of militant Muslims burned to the ground.

On the day of his arrest, officials interrogated Boulous along with three women, all of them journalists and all like Boulous were documenting “sectarian attacks,” the interrogation documents state. Unlike Boulous, the other reporters were only questioned and then released.

Attorney Ghobriel stated that when officials interrogated Boulous, they already had a complete dossier on his religious life. The interrogation papers support Ghobriel’s claim. In the 20-page document, facts about Boulous’s conversion and baptism were listed in detail. In all, Boulous’s conversion or the blasphemy charges against him were mentioned nine times.

After being held for six months, a judge sentenced Boulous to five years in prison on June 18, and levied a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (US$70) for what he called “disturbing the peace by broadcasting false information.” The three charges had been folded into one larger charge.

Boulous’s attorneys immediately filed for the right to appeal, which was granted. Ghobriel petitioned for bail, and on July 20 a judge ordered security officials to release Boulous, but in the 24 hours that prosecutors had to comply with the judge’s order, security officials from the Interior Ministry took Boulous into custody to be interrogated in Cairo.

In 2009, two lawyers supported by a group of Islamists charged Boulous with defaming Islam after he filed what became a very public lawsuit to force the Ministry of Interior to change the religious affiliation listed on his state-mandated national identification card from Muslim to Christian.

The blasphemy charge was based on his accusers’ accusation that the very act of leaving Islam alone casts the religion into ill repute. Boulous left Islam when he was 16 years old.

Ghobriel told Morning Star News that the Ministry of Interior has charged Boulous with violating Article 98f, defaming a revealed religion, and violating Article 161, perverting a holy book or ridiculing a religious celebration. He has also been charged with two counts of violating Article 102, inciting public sedition.

Religious freedom is guaranteed under Egyptian law but is limited by various interpretations of sharia (Islamic law), which can override national law. While it is easy and even encouraged for someone in Egypt to convert to Islam, it is impossible for a Muslim to legally convert to Christianity.

According to Egyptian law, every citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card. The card is necessary for anyone who wants to open a bank account, enroll children in school or start a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines many of the civil laws to which one is subject.

On Aug. 2, 2007, Boulous filed his lawsuit with the help of Mamdouh Nakhla, founder and lead counsel of the Kalema Center for Human Rights. He filed the case, Boulous said in 2007, mainly to protect his soon-to-be-born child from being forced to suffer the same persecution he experienced.

Within less than a week of filing the 2007 suit, Nakhla dropped out of the case due to death threats from numerous figures, including members of the SSI. Several well-known sheiks called for the death of Boulous, and he and his wife were forced into hiding.

As the case continued, Boulous’ home was set on fire, he was arrested, and several times State Security Intelligence (SSI) officials beat him while in custody. During this time in 2009, lawyers Mohammed Fathy Al-Shaheedy and Mohammad Adly Kadry filed the defamation charges against Boulous.

In April 2010, Boulous essentially lost his case when an appeals court suspended it indefinitely in order to wait for the country’s constitutional court to rule on a previous case dealing with religious identity. But before that case could be resolved, the 2011 revolution happened, an elected Islamist government that became overwhelmingly unpopular was forced out in military-backed popular coup and two constitutions were written and voted on by referendum.

Boulous has told Ghobriel that he has been tortured during his current detention. He has also reported that prison officials are housing him with violent felons, increasing the risks to his safety.

Though no court hearing has been set for the blasphemy charges, the state is required to complete its investigation by the middle of January and set bail for Boulous. The Egyptian government, however, regularly violates this in cases it deems of special interest.

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