A press conference was held by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) on Wednesday, presenting a report of the cases of defamation of religion since the 25 January Revolution.
The press conference was held by Amr Abdel Rahman, head of the civil liberties unit and Ishaq Ibrahim, writer of the report; Ibrahim explained that there has been a “recent surge in the phenomena of trying individuals for religious defamation,” with a “noted failure of state institutions to provide adequate protection to victims.”
During the month of September, five cases of religious defamation, the defendants of which are currently being tried, prompted the release of the report.
The report titled “The Siege of Thought” clarified that EIPR was able to track down 63 cases of individuals tried for religious defamation while “[outside] Cairo, the rate by which individuals are found guilty is 100%.” The report read that 59% of the defendants are Muslims and 41% are Christians.
In a statement EIPR gave on Monday, they said that “continuing trials on the bases of religious blasphemy represents an arbitrary constraint and adds to the current restrictions on the freedom of opinion and expression.” Ibrahim affirmed that “executive institutions within the state resort to customary practices to resolve the situation outside court, usually leading to the accused and their families being displaced from their homes.”
Ibrahim stated that there are “three areas which incite trying based on religious defamation, the legislative, where criminal law as well as the 2012 constitution has laws against defamation, executive, where certain institutions within the state arrest based on religious defamation and social, where many families of the accused are extracted from their homes assaulted and not allowed to return.”
The law responsible for religious defamation was law number 98 in the penal code, which states that individuals who insult religion verbally, in writing or by other means to promote extremist ideas with the aim at producing sectarian violence or contempt.
Ibrahim explained that the law was “first drafted to stop Islamist extremist ideas from spreading; however, it slowly started becoming a method to restrict freedom of speech.”
“Before the 25 January Revolution, a small number of cases were known, for example public figures who were tried after making movies or publishing books were accused of religious defamation, while between the period of the rule of the armed forces in 2011 and Morsi’s presidency in 2012, an increase of 100% occurred in the cases of religious defamation,” Ibrahim stated.
Abdel Rahman added that many of the guilty are “hunted down through Facebook or Twitter while other[s] are tried after they have a heated argument at work.” He also stated that “they are given several years in prison after a small action they performed from behind the computer screen.”
“Religious institutions also aid in the encouragement of trying individuals with religious defamation, where it is usually condemned by Al Azhar or by The Church,” Ibrahim explained.
Ibrahim said that the education sector, followed by the media, holds the highest number of individuals sued over religious defamation; which is ironic, as the media should be an advocate of free speech.
The organization explained that it has produced a series of recommendations on how to attempt at resolving the problem given a legal aspect, such as guaranteeing the right for due process, constitutional reform and the amendment of current laws that restrict different kinds of freedom.
According to Abdel Rahman, due process is usually a problem for the accused, as people gather in groups outside the courthouse to prevent the lawyers of the defendants from entering in time for trials. Also, many of the cases are assigned to judges who are not objective, as explained by Ibrahim, who said that “one judge who sentenced a defendant to six years in prison while stating that he would have given more years had the state not confined his decision.”
The highest governorates with reported cases of individuals referred to court due to religious defamation are in the Upper Egypt region, namely Minya and Qena. Ibrahim clarified that he believes that this is due to high sectarian tension in these areas between Muslims and Christians.
The independent rights organization was formed in 2002 with the aim of defending personal rights of citizens in Egypt.