For Immediate Release: October 4, 2012
New York City – Human Rights First today said that the arrest of two Coptic Christian boys, ages 9 and 10, in Egypt for allegedly tearing pages of Koranic text demonstrates a growing abuse of blasphemy laws that are being used to target religious minorities, exacerbate sectarian tensions and restrict freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The boys were detained on Sunday, Sept. 30, and released today after being held in a juvenile detention facility near Cairo.
“This case demonstrates again that sweeping blasphemy laws are open to abuse. It is an absurdity that the children, who news reports say are illiterate, should be jailed for an alleged crime they were totally unaware of.” said Human Rights First’s Joelle Fiss.
There is now a spate of blasphemy cases, mostly involving Coptic Christians accused of insulting Islam. Less than three weeks ago an Egyptian court sentenced a Christian to six years of prison for disrespecting the Prophet Muhammad and for insulting Egyptian President Morsi and a plaintiff lawyer on social networking sites. The man in question, Bishoy Kamel, was arrested and detained by authorities in late July for posting cartoons on the web that were deemed to be insulting to Islam. He has refuted charges against him, claiming that his account had been hacked.
The Egyptian government is proposing to strengthen blasphemy laws in the process of re-writing its constitution and revising national laws. Human Rights First notes that blasphemy laws are inconsistent with international human rights standards, which are designed to protect individuals, not abstract ideas or religions. Far from protecting religion, they actually empower extremists and facilitate the persecution of religious minorities.
“The concept of blasphemy should be narrowly defined and interpreted to avoid abuses against religious minorities. In the meantime, these children and other victims of these laws must receive adequate legal protection if they are brought to trial,” concluded Fiss. “The U.S. government must make clear to its Egyptian counterparts that these laws are out of step with the basic tenets of democracy and universal human rights principles.”
In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council and the General Assembly adopted groundbreaking resolutions to address violence, discrimination and incitement to religious hatred without reference to the controversial notion of “defamation of religions.” The move marked an important shift away from efforts at the U.N. to create an international blasphemy code, something that has for the past decade been supported by Organization for Islamic Cooperation. Human Rights First has long advocated the reversal of the defamation approach and has encouraged states to combat hatred without restricting speech. Several of the organization’s recommendations were included in the U.N. resolutions.
For more information on blasphemy laws see Human Rights First’s report, Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions.” To speak with someone at Human Rights First, please contact Brenda Bowser Soder at firstname.lastname@example.org or 202-370-3323.