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EIPR: Sentencing of writer for contempt of religion represents continued abuse of 2018 cybercrime law

A man named Marco Girgis was sentenced to five years in prison for contempt of religion and violating family values by a misdemeanors circuit of the Cairo Economic Court on Saturday.

The ruling issued on Saturday “is a new episode in a series of prosecutions and trials of citizens in the context of restricting freedom of expression,” the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said in a Tuesday press release, citing the increased use of what it dubbed as broad and unconstitutional charges in several other cases and calling for Girgis’s immediate release.

As part of the Saturday sentence, the court also ordered Girgis’s phone to be confiscated and mandated that he pay “criminal expenses.”

Girgis was charged with exploiting religion to promote extremist ideas, contempt of Islam, and transgressing the values of the Egyptian family, according to EIPR, who represented Girgis during his trial.

However, while Girgis was initially investigated under the emergency court system, his final sentencing before an economic court under articles set out by the controversial 2018 cybercrime law represents the latest in a continuing trend of abuse of the law’s vague remit, EIPR and other lawyers told Mada Masr.

Girgis was arrested on June 14, 2021, for possession of pictures on his mobile phone that the prosecution deemed offensive to Islam. He was detained for nearly a month before he was interrogated by the State Security Prosecution. During his questioning, Girgis was asked about his consumption of alcohol and relations with women, in addition to private conversations and images of a sexual nature that were found on his phone.

The State Security Prosecution brought a case against him, accusing him of contempt of a monotheistic religion, offending Islam and using a website to commit terrorist acts.

But before Girgis appeared before a court, the state of emergency, which provided the legal justification for the establishment of emergency courts, was dropped across Egypt in October by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after four years of being in effect.

In turn, the State Security Prosecution referred Girgis to trial before a misdemeanors court in Cairo’s Waili area. On December 29, 2021, the court ruled that it lacked the jurisdiction to review the case and referred it to the first instance misdemeanour terrorism court in North Cairo which, likewise, ruled on January 5, 2022, that it lacked jurisdiction. The case was then referred to a Cairo economic court.

On January 12, 2022, the Financial and Commercial Affairs Prosecution registered the case as a misdemeanor under the 2018 cybercrimes law without re-questioning the defendant.

The prosecution built a new case against Girgis and accused him of using religion to promote extremist ideas on Facebook by sharing posts and pictures of a sexual nature to several other accounts, with the intention of offending Islam and instigating sedition.

Since the beginning of 2021, courts have ruled on several prominent cases in which the prosecution relied on the same accusations, EIPR said.

For example, on November 17, 2021, the Nozha State Security Emergency Misdemeanors Court sentenced lawyer and Islamic researcher Ahmed Abdo Maher to five years on charges of defamation of religion. The ruling was annulled by the military ruler this week, effectively ordering a retrial before another misdemeanors court scheduled for next week.

Yet, several other people have been jailed pending investigations on accusations of defaming religions, insulting Islam, and violating family values.

Since 2020, authorities have used the far-reaching powers of the cybercrime law to crackdown on TikTok content creators on the charge of transgressing family values.

EIPR said that these rulings are based on the charges of contempt of religions and the attack on the values of the Egyptian family and society, both of which are vaguely defined, thus paving the way for the misuse of these accusations to punish freedoms of opinion, expression, creativity and belief.

The latest ruling, along with dozens of others, are evidence that the crime of violating family values can be directed to anyone with an account on social media or a mobile phone, Hassan al-Azhary, a lawyer and researcher at the Masaar Technology and Law Community told Mada.

The vagueness of the expression “infringing on family values” and the absence of a clear definition of the charge often result in the prosecutor or the judge assessing the validity of the charge based on their own personal convictions, according to Azhary.

Moreover, Azhary said that in light of the absence of this definition, both the court and the prosecution use the charge interchangeably with or alongside other charges related to bullying or contempt for religion. For example, a video of a doctor asking a male nurse to kneel before a dog led to the former being charged with violating family values. Another case earlier this week also saw an economic court sentence a man to three years in prison and fine him LE100,000 for bullying as well as violating family values.

Azhary said these rulings illustrate the concerns expressed by some when the cybercrime law was issued who were calling for the law to be amended to reflect clear and specific charges that do not leave room for personal interpretation.

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