12-19-2012By Joëlle Fiss
Fighting Discrimination Program
On December 12, Alber Saber, an Egyptian blogger, was sentenced to three years in prison for insulting religion, a crime under the country’s penal code. The case reveals—all too perfectly—the dangers of criminalizing speech deemed blasphemous or defamatory to religion.
The case unfolds as Egyptians vote on a new draft Constitution, likely to be approved on December 22. The constitution, which includes a provision outlawing “insulting or defaming all prophets or messengers,” would reinforce the statutory prohibition and increase the likelihood of prosecutions like the one targeting Saber.
In September, a mob of extremists gathered outside Saber’s house and accused him of linking to the “Innocence of Muslims” video on his Facebook page. Although he denied the accusation, authorities detained him without a warrant, holding him in harsh conditions and allegedly torturing him. Mob violence and disregard for the legal rights of the defendant often accompany such cases.
The case also reminds us that these laws expose religious minorities to persecution. Saber—an atheist member of the Christian Copt community—was, in effect, a double religious minority.
The Saber case is also representative in that it involves an attack on Internet freedom. Prosecutions of bloggers and social media users who discuss religious subjects are on the rise. Governments and companies must protect freedom of expression for Internet users. As Saber’s case shows, a loose accusation of blasphemy or insulting religion can lead to the prosecution of person who’s done nothing more than exercise the universal right to freedom of expression.
Monday, Saber was released on bail pending an appeal of his sentence. His detention was extended six days after he had paid his bail for no legal reason, a further denial of basic rights.
Hateful speech can never justify violence and should not be the basis for a criminal prosecution. When governments or religious movements seek to punish in the name of’ “protecting religion,” violence and other violations of human rights often ensue.
Further criminalization of speech deemed blasphemous or insulting to religion will only result in more injustice. Instead of providing religion with sweeping legal protections that it does not need, Egypt should strengthen legal protections for people who express their views peacefully. That will create a firm foundation for social peace and freedom of religion.