A 27 year-old Egyptian blogger has been released on bail pending an appeal of his 12 December conviction for blasphemy and contempt of religion. He was sentenced to three years in jail.
A Coptic Christian turned atheist, Alber Saber was arrested at his home three months ago after neighbours accused him of circulating the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims on his Facebook page. Although Saber denied the charge — and the prosecutor did not produce any evidence to support that claim — he was convicted and kept behind bars in a tiny cell at Cairo’s Tora prison until his release on Monday.
Saber ran an atheist group on Facebook and the prosecution is based on comparative religion material found on his bookshelf and statements critical of Islam found on his computer. Atheists do not get an easy ride in Egypt.
Looking haggard after his ordeal, in an interview with Index on Sunday he remained defiant saying “no price is too high for freedom.” We talked while Saber was in the Fifth Settlement Court signing papers to appeal his case. He was handcuffed but was in high spirits after learning that he would be released the following day. He was accompanied by his mother, Kariman Messiah and his lawyer Ahmed Ezzat from the Association for Free Thought and Expression.
Saber unzipped his high collar white track suit to show me a brown scar on his throat. “Inmates at El Marg prison where I was first taken after my arrest stabbed me in the throat after the prison guard told them I had insulted Islam,” he recounted, “I’m lucky I’m still alive.”
Ezzat said the case does not auger well for free expression in Egypt under President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist rule. A draft constitution being put to a popular vote limits religious freedom to followers of the three Abrahamic faiths: Muslims, Christians and Jews. “[R]eligious practices are allowed as long as they do not disturb public order” and the document bans “insulting prophets” — a prohibition that analysts say “will open the door to arrests of bloggers and activists.” Islamists say that a majority yes-vote would usher in stability while opposition groups believe that it will plunge the country into a deeper political crisis.
Saber’s biggest regret is that he was not be able to vote “No” on the consitution he suspects will consolidate power for the Muslim Brotherhood. The first round of the referendum on the draft constitution was held on Saturday while Saber was still behind bars. He says:
I was jailed because we live in a theocracy. The ‘Islamist’ constitution will limit creativity and freedom of expression further
Saber and other sceptics fear that Egypt’s minority Christians — who make up 10 to 12 per cent of the population — will become more of a target as Egypt grows more conservative post-revolution. On 9 October last year, Coptic Christians peacefully demonstrating against the destruction of churches outside of Egypt’s state television complex, Maspero, were brutally attacked by security forces, resulting in the deaths of 27 protesters. In July this year, the Coptic community of Dahshur, a village south of Cairo, were forced to flee after a rise in sectarian tensions.
“Why is Abu Islam a free man? He has not been imprisoned but my son has,” argues Kariman Messiah, Alber’s mother wearing a black “Free Alber Saber” T-shirt. Abu Islam, a radical Muslim cleric is currently on trial for burning the Bible during a 14 September rally protesting the Innocence of Muslims.
Messiah also raised the cases of Bishoy Kamel, a Coptic Christian school teacher from the southern city of Sohag who was sentenced to six years in prison last September for posting cartoons online deemed offensive to Islam and for insulting President Morsi and that of two Coptic children aged 9 and 10 who have been detained on blasphemy charges.
Messiah believes her son was jailed on what she called “trumped-up charges” as a result of his political activism. “In January 2012, state security officers paid us a dawn visit and ransacked our home,” she said, tearing up.
While mother and son were unable to return to their home in Marg for fear that Saber would face further intimidation, Messiah said that “all that matters now is that he is free and will be able to pursue his studies at the Academy.”
For Saber, a Computer Science student now in his final year, the future is uncertain but he vows to continue his free speech activism, no matter how high the stakes.
Shahira Amin is an Egyptian journalist and broadcaster