CAIRO: Rights groups and lawyers are rallying behind a publisher and author facing the possibility of up to two years imprisonment for producing a comic book.
The trial of “Metro author Magdy L. Shafee and publisher Mohamed El-Sharqawy of Malamih, which began last Saturday, will resume on April 4.
Ahmed Ragheb, a lawyer with the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, explained during a press conference held Monday that the defense team asked for an adjournment in order to prepare the case.
Ragheb said that lawyers were “taken by surprise by the hearing for which they received notification only 48 hours in advance.
Shafee and El-Sharqawy are being charged under article 178 of the Egyptian penal code which criminalizes the printing or distribution of publications which “infringe public decency.
Copies of the comic book, published in early 2008, were seized by vice squad officers in April last year when they broke into Malamih’s offices.
The seizure order was later confirmed by the public prosecution office.
“Under article 198 of the criminal procedures code the police has the right to seize publications which it regards as contrary to public morals, Ragheb explained.
“This article forms part of a bundle of repressive laws that violate rights relating to freedom of expression.
Ragheb explained that while the seizure of “Metro – which deals with politically sensitive issues and contains some limited content of a sexual nature – came as no surprise, lawyers were shocked when criminal charges were then brought against Shafee and El-Sharqawy “under the same penal code article used to prosecute producers of pornography.
Ragheb said that the article in question is unconstitutional because it restricts the right to creative freedom laid down in the Egyptian Constitution.
El-Sharqawy condemned the trial in general, but reserved particular scorn for charges raised against him by ‘Hesba’ lawyers – private lawyers connected to the ruling regime who raise politically-motivated cases.
According to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Hesba lawyer in question is the same lawyer who in 2007 raised a case against Al-Dostour editor Ibrahim Eissa.
“We could accept a trial in newspapers carried out by critics which gives the author and the publisher the right of reply. But we cannot accept that a judge – who has no connection with comics, with this written form of art – be the arbitrator, El-Sharqawy told the press conference.
“One of the lawyers who has raised a case against me – whose name I won’t mention because they bring these cases for money and fame – says that [Metro] represents a clear attack on public morals, and that it influences young people’s minds and behavior since these images seek to spread depravity and corrupt morals.
“The only thing this lawyer sees in this novel – which discusses the concerns of many people: poor people in Egypt; people who leave university and can’t find a job – is an image of two young people having sexual intercourse. A male caricature having sexual intercourse with a female caricature.
“Perhaps it should be tried in a court of caricatures, Shafee joked.
Ragheb explained that defense team arguments will rely on the unconstitutionality of the articles under which these charges have been brought, as well as their infringement of international agreements.
“We will in addition argue that Metro is not actually in violation of article 178 because the events described in the work occur in an artistic and dramatic context, Ragheb explained.
“We are thinking of calling on the minister of culture [Farouk Hosny] to give testimony in his capacity as an artist rather than as a minister. We will ask him whether it is conscionable to put creativity on trial, he continued
In a joint-statement issued Monday condemning the trial, ANHRI and other groups link the “Metro trial with Hosny’s UNESCO’s nomination.
“[We] strongly condemn the trial of a literary text before a criminal court at the same time as the Minister of Culture, who is an artist, is being nominated for the post of director general of UNESCO, the statement reads.
“It is ridiculous that the Egyptian government is nominating a person, who is unable to protect intellectuals and artists in his own country, for such a post.
El-Sharqawy was asked whether he thought his previous political activity might be responsible for the trial.
At the time that Malamih’s office was raided, El-Sharqawy, who has a history of political activism, was himself in police custody.
He was detained on the evening of April 7, a day after protests in Cairo and elsewhere were held to coincide with a general strike called for by online opposition groups.
“Sometimes I think that if I wasn’t Mohamed El-Sharqawy and was just an ordinary publisher the novel would have passed unnoticed. But then Magdy has been charged with the same offences. He might be facing these charges just because of what he wrote. Malamih might not be a factor at all, El-Sharqawy said.
“The novel discusses issues which would never have passed easily and no other publisher would have published this, he continued.
El-Sharqawy suggested that “Metro represents a threat to the regime.
“They’re scared of anything new, scared of comics which are usually for kids and which are suddenly being read by adults; comics which are dealing with the events of May 25 [2006, when female protestors and journalists were sexually assaulted by thugs while the police stood by and watched], with concerns of ordinary citizens.
“They don’t want this to reach people. It reaches people’s hearts and feelings more quickly than other art forms.
Shafee explained that he had not set out to generate controversy when he created “Metro.
“I didn’t try to create a ‘great piece of work’ nor did I try to give it heavy promotion; It’s received as it’s received. Before it was seized it had a nice reception. This would have happened without it being seized.
“I didn’t try to turn the world upside down with this comic, nor deal with huge issues . Imagine if I had, I would have been given ‘five years execution’.