Prominent international NGO Human Rights Watch criticised the prosecution of an Egyptian man accused of blasphemy and insulting Islam, in a statement on Tuesday.
Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the rights-group’s MENA programme, said: “Atheists are one of Egypt’s least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression.”
On Saturday, Karim Al-Banna was sentenced to three years in prison on charges of contempt of religion and insulting the divine by Idku Misdemeanor Court in the Delta governorate of Beheira.
Al-Banna is accused of using his Facebook account to publish articles that “belittle the divine”, according to the rights group Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE).
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on freedom of religion and belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), told Daily News Egypt that Al-Banna declared his atheism online and subsequently was harassed in public. Upon seeking to file a report of the assault at a police department in Idku, Al-Banna was arrested.
Ishaq Ibrahim also reported that the case against Al-Banna was supported by his father, who identified “suspect” books in possession of his son to support the case.
Human Rights Watch said that the sentence, one of several handed down on blasphemy charges in recent years, comes “amid a coordinated government crackdown on perceived atheists”.
“Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism,” Whitson continued.
Referring to the December closure of an alleged ‘atheist café’ that was accused of hosting satanic rituals by security forces, HRW said that Al-Banna’s “sentencing is part of a wider government push to combat atheism and other forms of dissent.”
Whilst Article 2 of the current constitution, passed after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi, states: “Islam is the religion of the State… the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation,” Article 64 maintains that “freedom of religion is absolute.”
However, despite not being explicitly illegal by law, the Egyptian government and judicial system has recently been upholding the role of religion in the country by using charges of “contempt of heavenly religions”, desecrating religious symbols and mocking religious rites in public, which can carry sentences of up to five years according to the penal code.
Al-Banna will be released on bail of EGP 1,000 to suspend the prison time, prior to a retrial.