Case Against Bassem Youssef Turns Spotlight to Abuse of Egypt’s Blasphemy Laws
Washington, D.C. – The persecution of Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef – who is currently out on bail after an investigation began into his alleged “threatening public security,” insulting President Morsi” and “insulting religion” – is an exemplary case of how defamation and blasphemy laws are easily abused by governments and zealous prosecutors seeking to stifle dissent and restrict basic freedoms, said Human Rights First. Youssef communicated through twitter that accusations against him “include spreading rumors and disturbing the ‘peace’.” Today, Ali Qandil, a stand up comedian who appeared on Bassem Youssef’s television program, has reportedly been summoned to answer accusations that his jokes on a satirical comedy show also “insulted religion.”
“Bassem Youssef may be the highest-profile victim of Egypt’s abuse of blasphemy laws, but he is certainly not alone,” said Human Rights First’s Tad Stahnke. “The judicial bullying of Youssef is characteristic of Egypt’s failure to respect freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The U.S. government should make clear that such abuses undermine Egypt’s efforts to reform and rebuild its economy.”
In March 2012, Human Rights First issued an update to its 2011 report Blasphemy Laws Exposed: The Consequences of Criminalizing “Defamation of Religions,” which documented more than 100 recent cases from 18 countries that demonstrate the gross abuse of national blasphemy laws. The organization, which is currently preparing the second update to that report, notes that Egypt is a growing abuser of blasphemy statues. Other recent cases from Egypt include a six-year prison sentence handed down in the case of Bishoy Kamel, a Coptic Christian teacher from the southern Egyptian province of Sohag who posted cartoons on Facebook that the court said insulted Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and President Morsi. Earlier, in February 2007, Kareem Amer, a 22-year-old law student from Alexandria, was sentenced to four years in prison, including three years for contempt of religion and one year for defaming President Mubarak.
“It’s clear that elections did not erase the abuse of blasphemy laws in Egypt. With President Morsi in power now, the string of cases continues to grow,” notes Stahnke.
Human Rights First notes that blasphemy laws are frequently used to stifle debate and dissent, harass rivals, and settle petty disputes among neighbors, business partners and political adversaries. Increasingly, these laws also trigger violence. It has become commonplace for mobs to gather in and around courtrooms where blasphemy cases are tried. In many cases, vigilantes are often called to arms over the loudspeakers of local mosques and stand prepared to take the law into their own hands if the court does not hand down a guilty verdict.