UPDATE: March 25, 2016
Ahmed Naji remains in Tora Prison, despite efforts by his lawyers to secure his release pending his appeal. A plea to suspend his two-year prison sentence was filed on March 1.
On March 7, the court released its reasoning in the verdict against Naji, claiming that creative expression is limited by religion, tradition, and moral values.
Naji’s case has garnered worldwide attention and support, being covered in outlets like the Guardian, the Washington Post, and CNN. Egyptian Minister of Culture Helmy al-Namnam attended a press conference at the Journalists Syndicate held in solidarity with Naji on February 25, at which he argued that literature that challenges social norms does not justify imprisonment, and that it was the man who filed the lawsuit against Naji, not Naji himself, who had harmed public morality.
Seven of the 50 officials charged with drafting Egypt’s 2014 constitution issued a statement condemning Naji’s sentence, as did prominent Egyptian columnist Ibrahim Eissa. Fifteen Egyptian rights organizations issued a statement on February 21 calling the ruling “a warning sign that freedom of expression and art are in danger,” and the Egyptian Publishers Union called for his release. Human Rights group FIDH released a statement condemning the verdict against Naji and saying Egyptian civil society is being “lowered into hell.”
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We, the undersigned scholars, novelists, journalists, artists, and others, write to express our unequivocal condemnation of the two-year prison sentence handed down to Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji today, February 20, 2016. The sentence was delivered by the Bulaq Criminal Court, despite his acquittal in January 2016. We express our solidarity and commitment to Naji and to all of our Egyptian counterparts who face attacks on their freedom of expression.
Naji’s case was the result of a complaint claiming that an excerpt of the author’s novel Istikhdam al-Hayat (The Use of Life) had threatened the plaintiff’s sense of morality. Thereafter, Naji faced charges of “harming public morality,” along with Tarek el-Taher, the editor of Akhbar al-Adab, where the excerpt appeared (issue 1097). Despite testimonies from defense witnesses, including renowned writer and journalist Mohamed Salmawy and award-winning novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, and an acquittal in January 2016 that found the Egyptian Penal Code too rigid to apply to matters of self-expression, the appeals process resulted today in an egregious two-year sentence for Naji and a 10,000 EGP fine for al-Taher.
Naji’s case is not isolated; a similar case was brought against graphic novelist Magdy el-Shafei for his 2008 novel Metro, which resulted in a fine but not imprisonment.
The sentence against Naji directly contravenes Egypt’s domestic law and international legal obligations. Under Article 67 of the Constitution, freedom of artistic and literary creativity is guaranteed; further, under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Egypt is obligated to respect the rights of all citizens to freedom of expression.
Additionally, the text of Article 178 of the Penal Code, under which Naji was sentenced, is unconstitutionally broad and allows for immense discretion and varied interpretations that allow for the violation of basic rights and freedoms. The provision sets forth a maximum two-year sentence and fine between 5,000 and 10,000 EGP for “whoever makes or holds for the purpose of trade, distribution, leasing, pasting or displaying printed matter, manuscripts, drawings, advertisements, carved or engraved pictures, manual or photographic drawings, symbolic signs, or other objects or pictures in general…against public morals.” As a subjective term that carries distinctly varied meanings for different people, “public morals” cannot be a basis for prosecution.
Today’s sentence is a travesty for freedom of expression and justice more broadly. Not only is the verdict unconstitutional, but it comes in the context of a broader crackdown that has seen the detention of academics at airports, the harassment of cartoonists for their artwork, and the raiding of publishing houses and art spaces.
The Egyptian government’s inability to deliver on its promises for security or economic development has led to authorities’ crackdown on all forms of expression. Today’s case speaks to the government’s manipulation of conservative sentiments in society while posing as guardians of morals and religion, at the expense of its citizens’ rights and freedom.
The Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP) & the Undersigned