EGYPT: Christian’s six-year sentence for blasphemy upheld

A judge in Upper Egypt has upheld a six-year prison sentence for a Coptic Christian wrongly convicted of "blasphemy" against Islam and inciting sectarian strife.

On 5 April 2012 the judge refused to strike down a sentence that had been delivered on 29 February to Makarem Diab (49) of the town of Abnoub in Assuit Province. The charges arose from an argument in February between Diab, a school administrator, and Abd Al Hameed, a fellow employee.

Makarem's lawyer, Ahmed Sayed Gebaly, a Muslim, said that the charges were inflated: "I know Makarem well, because we grew up together, and I know he wouldn't do that. To be honest, he didn't do anything wrong. If he did, I would have told him." The lawyer said he was surprised by how far Abd Al Hameed took the accusations. "The whole thing was just an ordinary discussion," he said.

According to the lawyer, Abd Al Hameed told Makarem that Jesus had sex with at least ten women who were Mehram or forbidden to Him under Islamic law (though Islam appeared more than six centuries after Jesus). Makarem countered this claim by stating that the Prophet Muhammad had more than four wives, a view commonly held by Islamic scholars, although disputes arise over whether he had more than four wives over the course of his life or at one time.

Abd Al Hameed reported Makarem to a misdemeanor court, and the police arrested and held him for four days before he was presented to a judge. On 29 February, in a ten-minute court hearing with no defence lawyer present, the judge sentenced Makarem to six years in prison for "insulting the Prophet" and "provoking students".

During an appeal hearing on 16 March, Abd Al Hameed instigated a massive riot by a crowd of Muslim lawyers outside the courthouse. The lawyers became so enraged that they burst into the courtroom during the hearing and assaulted Makarem's lawyers (most of whom are Muslims). They also blocked access to the courtroom.

The judge upheld the six-year sentence but immediately scheduled an appeal hearing. Makarem's lawyer, Ahmed Sayed Gebaly, said that the judge upheld the sentence out of fear. He was outside the courthouse getting legal papers for the case when the attack happened. "Soon after that, I was called by these [Makarem's] lawyers, and they told me that they were beaten up inside the court and in front of the judge, so I went back to sort out the problem, and I was shocked when the judge kept the six-year sentence," he said.

Ahmed Sayed Gebaly went to the next hearing on 5 April, and again the judge's ruling surprised him. "We were expecting that he would be released with no charges, but the law was used in the wrong way, and now we are trying to appeal again, if his appeal gets accepted." Makarem remains in Assuit General Prison awaiting appeal.

Increasing use of religious-based laws

The action against Makarem Diab is yet another example of how Muslims in Egypt are increasingly using religious-based laws to persecute Christians or even Muslims who don't conform to a strict interpretation to Sunni Islam.

On 24 April, a Cairo court upheld a conviction against Adel Imam, arguably the best-known actor in the Arabic-speaking world, for blaspheming Islam. Adel Imam ran afoul of a lawyer with connections to the Salafi movement for his satirical roles about extremism. The sentence carries three months in jail and a fine of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (€125). Adel Imam's lawyers plan to appeal the decision.

On 4 April, a judge sentenced Copt Gamal Abdou Massoud (17) to three years in prison for allegedly insulting Islam. Gamal denied the charges, but the court claimed that he posted cartoons on his Facebook account that mocked the Islamic religion and the Prophet Muhammad, and that he distributed the pictures to other students. His lawyers plan to appeal the sentence.

On 3 March, a Cairo court dismissed a case against Naguib Sawaris, a Coptic telecommunications tycoon, who was accused of insulting Islam for placing a cartoon of Minnie Mouse in a veil on his Facebook site as a satirical comment on what Egypt would look like if Islamists gained political power in the country. (Compass Direct News)