Student in hiding after prison sentence for atheism

Emir Nader
6 Min Read

An Egyptian student is evading authorities after a court confirmed a three-year prison sentence on charges of contempt of religion and insulting the divine.

Engineering student Karim Al-Banna was arrested in November and in January, after 55 days in detention in the Idku District, the Misdemeanour Court handed out the stiff sentence. The Court allowed for a bail of EGP 3,000 to suspend the prison term.

However, Ahmed Abdel Naby, Al-Banna’s defence lawyer, told Daily News Egypt that on Monday the prosecution successfully appealed the initial suspended prison sentence given to Al-Banna in January.

Al-Banna, 23, was accused of using his Facebook account to publish articles about atheism and which “belittle the divine”.

Lawyer Abdel Naby, who works with the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), said that “the lawyer working with the prosecution is known for extremely Islamist affiliations. He even called for there to be no hearing and for Karim to be sent to jail without trial.” In the initial hearing Abdel Naby said that they were not given opportunity to present their defence case.

Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher on freedom of religion and belief at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), previously told Daily News Egypt that Al-Banna declared his atheism online. He was subsequently attacked in public by local residents, but upon seeking to file a report of the assault at a police department in Idku, Al-Banna himself was arrested.

Ibrahim also reported the case against Al-Banna was supported by his father, who identified “suspect” books in possession of his son, and later testified in the case.

Prior to the retrial on 9 March, Abdel Naby said he believed that the case had lost its fairness and impartiality, saying: “It is highly politicised…the prosecution has tried to prove him guilty by whatever means possible.”

Abdel Naby added that his client took the decision not to attend the retrial after he told Al-Banna that the prosecution were to present transcripts of alleged telephone conversations of his in the case against him.

The lawyer told Daily News Egypt that Al-Banna is now in hiding from the authorities, and if he is caught he will be made to face his jail term.

Abdel Naby also said they intend to appeal the verdict, a process which is possible through the Court of Cassation.

Another Egyptian man, who was previously sentenced on charges of contempt of religion but was given political asylum abroad, told Daily News Egypt that through his contact with Al-Banna he was told the student’s family had encouraged him to face the judicial process and break off ties with any journalists and human rights lawyers.

Following Al-Banna’s initial verdict in January, Sarah Leah Whitson, director of the Human Rights Watch’s MENA programme, said: “Atheists are one of Egypt’s least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression… [the] Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism.”

The rights watchdog said that the sentence, one of several handed down on blasphemy charges in recent years, and “is part of a wider government push to combat atheism and other forms of dissent”.

Article 2 of the current Egyptian constitution, passed after the overthrow of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohammed Morsi, states: “Islam is the religion of the State…the principles of Islamic Shari’a are the main source of legislation.”

However, despite atheism not being explicitly illegal by the constitution, authorities have targeted many atheists using the charges of contempt of religion. Insults against Egypt’s three recognised monotheist religions  – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – are illegal. According to the EIPR, between 2011 and 2013, 42 defendants faced were found guilty of the charge.

In February, a student from Ismailia was given a one year prison sentence by a court for contempt of religion relating to activities on campus and atheist statements online.

Sherif Gaber, 22, was studying at Suez Canal University in 2013, when teaching staff and fellow students reported him via a petition to the institution’s President. They said he had made posts supporting atheism on Facebook, and suspected him of being behind a page called ‘The Atheists’.

In August, the ministries of Religious Endowment and Culture signed a joint protocol to confront the two “extremisms”; both religious extremism and atheism, and to “spread true Islam”.

In the light of recent cases against atheists and alleged homosexuals, many have commented that the environment is more Islamist now than under Morsi, as the government tries to lay claim to religious authority.

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