On Jan. 26, an Egyptian court sentenced journalist Fatima Naaot to three years in jail and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds ($2,500) for “defaming religions.” The judgment reflected a “return to hisbah lawsuits, which are a threat to freedom of opinion, expression, thought, belief and human rights,” said a Jan. 27 statement by the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights. Hisbah — meaning “accountability” — is an Islamic doctrine involving the ruler or government’s duty to promote what is right and prevent wrong.
Naaot was accused of contempt for Islam and mocking the Islamic al-Adhiya (sacrifices) ritual. She had described the annual Islamic holiday of sacrifice — Eid al-Adha — in an October 2014 Facebook post as “a massacre committed because of the startling nightmare one of the righteous ones had about his son,” in a reference to the story of Abraham in the Quran.
Mahmoud Othman, a legal scholar at the Institution of Freedom of Thought and Expression, said hisbah lawsuits are based on Article 3 of the Code of Procedure, which allows anyone to file a lawsuit against any creative work by an artist, writer or public figure as long as the plaintiff has an interest in it. Also, the lawsuit must be aimed at avoiding imminent damage or at documenting evidence. Such lawsuits are submitted to the public prosecutor, who determines their merit.
Othman told Al-Monitor that hisbah lawsuits violate the Egyptian Constitution, which says, “Freedom of thought and opinion is guaranteed. Every person has the right to express his opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication.” The constitution also states, “Freedom of artistic and literary creativity is guaranteed. The state shall encourage arts and literature, sponsor creative artists and writers, and protect their productions. … No lawsuit may be initiated or filed to stop or confiscate any artistic, literary or intellectual work.”
Salah Issa, secretary-general of the Supreme Council for the Press, told Al-Monitor, “All judgments handed down in publication lawsuits are a return to hisbah lawsuits and are contrary to the express provision of the constitution concerning the abolition of prison sentences for publication offenses.” He added, “This problem is due to a text in the constitution that says that all laws that existed prior to the ratification of the constitution remain in effect until they are amended.”
Pending those amendments, Issa said, “The prosecutor and the judges should apply the constitutional provisions that criminalize punishing all publication and expression cases,” a move he described as “judicial harmonization.” He added, “A judge who looks at such cases should only approve the fine, rather than imprisonment, so as not to conflict with the provisions of the constitution.”
He called on parliament to quickly consider laws that complement the constitution.
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