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Christian man jailed for six years in Egypt for “insulting” Muhammad

Country/Region: Middle East and North Africa, Egypt, Africa

A Christian man has been sentenced to six years in prison for “insulting” Muhammad following a dispute with a Muslim colleague in Egypt.

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Makram Diab, a school secretary, was given double the maximum sentence for Defamation of Religion, prompting accusations that the judge acted to appease Muslim groups at the court in Assiut. An angry 2,500-strong mob gathered outside, demanding the death penalty for the defendant. Some were reportedly carrying knives; they were blocked by police from breaking into the court.

There have been complaints about the court proceedings. Diab’s Muslim lawyer, Ahmad Sayed Gabali, said that he had never experienced anything like it in his 18 years of practice. He said:

Over 80 Islamist lawyers representing civil rights claimants filled the court, locked the door of the court from the inside, not allowing the judge out, and prevented me as the defence lawyer from going inside the court and defending my client.

Diab was accused on 23 February of insulting Muhammad, almost two weeks after a heated discussion with a Salafi teacher at the school where they worked. The complaint was made by another teacher, who was not present during the dispute, and signed by another 11 teachers. Muslim staff at the school went on strike until Diab was arrested and prosecuted.

According to the official court version, Diab allegedly said that Muhammad had sexually harassed his disciples, but the defendant’s sister said that he had simply asked the Muslim teacher whether it was true that Muhammad had married 40 wives.

Defamation of Religion is considered a misdemeanour under Egyptian law, punishable by a prison sentence of one month to three years.

An appeal has been lodged on Diab’s behalf and will be heard on 15 March. He is being held in the high security section of the Assuit prison.

Case thrown out

In another high profile religious defamation case, two lawsuits brought by Islamists against the Christian businessman and liberal political leader Naguib Sawaris have been thrown out of court.

Mr Sawaris was charged with “blasphemy and insulting Islam” for an image he tweeted last June depicting Mickey and Minnie Mouse in an Islamic guise, with a long beard and face veil respectively.

Both lawsuits filed against him were rejected – one on 3 March, the other on 28 February – on the grounds that the plaintiffs were not eligible to bring the case.

The tweet sparked a Muslim backlash against telecommunications executive Mr Sawaris with conservative groups calling for boycotts of his companies. Mobinil, in which he is a major shareholder, reportedly lost around 300,000 customers in what has been dubbed locally as the “Mickey row”.

Mr Sawiris, co-founder and leader of the secular liberal Free Egyptians party, has spoken out against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the country.

The filing of recent blasphemy cases by Salafi lawyers has sparked alarm among liberals who are concerned about the threat to freedom of speech in the new Egyptian order.

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