Human Rights Watch urged Egyptian authorities earlier this month to withdraw prison sentences against four Coptic Christian teenagers, who were convicted of blasphemy on February 25. Their conviction was based on a video, in which the four minors are seen mocking Islamic State militants after their Libyan affiliates beheaded a group of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians last year.
“These children shouldn’t face prison for expressing themselves, even with an immature joke,” said Nadim Houry, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East director. “Mocking ISIS, or any religious group, with a childish joke is not a crime. Instead of giving in to retrograde views on blasphemy, Egyptian authorities should protect freedom of expression.”
The 32-second clip shows the teens pretending to pray, with one reciting Quranic verses while kneeling on the floor and two others laughing while standing behind him. Soon after, one child is seen running his hand across another’s throat, in an attempt to mimic a beheading. Reportedly, the footage had been recorded by their teacher, Gad Yousef Younan, who also happens to be a Coptic Christian. In a separate trial, he was sentenced to three years in prison for insulting Islam.
Three of the teenagers –namely 17-year-old Mueller Edward, 16-year-old Bassem Hanna and 16-year-old Alber Ashraf– (who were tried in their absence) were sentenced for five years; while the fourth (17-year-old Clinton Yousef) was sent to a juvenile facility. Police officials arrested the four on April 9, 2015, after their classmates circulated the video among themselves before reporting it to another teacher at school.
“They are just teenagers,” Edward's father told Human Rights Watch. “They were psychologically troubled by the killings of Coptic Christians in Libya and went for entertainment. They didn't deliberately intend any offense. How can you try someone for mocking ISIS.”
Additionally, Human Rights Watch urged Egypt to withdraw the penal code that is typically used to prosecute blasphemy in the country. This development took place after prosecutors charged the teens under Article 98(f) of Egypt’s penal code that prohibits contempt of religion as well as Articles 160 and 161 that concern the public conduct of religious rituals despite this particular video having been recorded in a private setup. Upon conviction, Article 98(f) allows a fine of between $70 and $130 and a prison sentence of between six months and five years.
Apart from Human Rights Watch, over 28 other rights groups and political parties condemned the court’s ruling against the children and their teacher, demanding the immediate repeal of Article 98(f) in particular, as it has largely contributed to the growing number of prosecutions for blasphemy under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s governance.
According to Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, there have been at least nine cases in which 12 individuals were convicted for blasphemy in 2015 and as many as 11 cases are still pending. These cases involve Sunnis, Shiites, Christians as well as atheists.
Photo Credits: Latino News Today