Egyptian atheist's jail sentence blow to religious freedom

Saber speaks to ANSAmed, they arrested me instead of attackers

31 December, 13:31

(By Shelly Kittleson) (ANSAmed) - CAIRO, DECEMBER 31 - When a furious mob attacked Alber Saber's house in September, calling for his death and accusing him of burning the Koran and promoting the film The Innocence of Muslims on social networks, his mother phoned the police. On arriving, the police arrested him instead of his attackers, forced him to sign documents he hadn't read and left him alone with other detainees at the police station after inciting violence against him, Saber told ANSAmed.

A few days after his release on bail pending appeal of the December 12 conviction for insulting religion, for which he has been sentenced to three years in jail, Saber granted an interview to ANSAmed in the offices of Egypt's Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE). Slimmer than in photos taken previous to his detention, head shaven and face haggard and pale, the twenty-six-year-old showed a reddish-brown scar on his neck which he claims is from detainees who cut him with a sharp object at the police station he was taken to after the police officer in charge incited them and then locked him in as they attacked him. In the uproar sparked in September after the Egyptian Islamist television station Al-Nas broadcast part of the amateur film The Innocence of Muslims, which portrays the Prophet Mohammed in a negative light and was made by an Egyptian Copt living in the US, Saber was accused by a number of people in his neighbourhood - who he describes as ''thugs'' - of posting the video, running an atheist website and burning the Koran.

Although he denies the accusations (the police reportedly did not find any evidence of the original charges, but did find information on comparative religion and related subjects when they searched his home), Saber is from a Coptic Christian family and is an avowed atheist. Confessing to not believing in God is an extreme rarity in Egypt, where identity cards must state whether the holder is Muslim, Christian or Jewish. He says he came to this decision after ''years of studying religion and philosophy'' at Beni Suef University, before he decided to switch to a computer science degree programme in Cairo, which he was to have finished this year.

Politically active though not at the forefront during the 2011 uprising against the Mubarak regime, he was arrested briefly on 26 January 2011 at a protest in front of the Journalists' Syndicate. He then had his home searched and computer, CDs and other materials confiscated when police raided his home in January of this year, most likely due to comments made on Facebook questioning religion.

Saber is not the first to have been sentenced on similar charges over the past year. In April an Egyptian juvenile court sentenced the Coptic teenager Gamal Abdou Massoud to three years in prison for posting cartoons mocking Islam on Facebook, while Coptic schoolteacher Bishoy Kamel was sentenced to six years in prison in September for sharing Innocence of Muslims on Facebook and for ''insulting the president'' and two Coptic boys (aged 9 and 10) were arrested in October for ''defiling the Koran''. The two children were later released but ''will remain under investigation''.

In any case, Saber continues to deny all charges. Both his conviction and the general climate surrounding freedom of religion and expression in Egypt has raised concern among human rights groups. With the recent approval of the referendum on the Islamist-drafted constitution, insulting religion is no longer just a violation of the criminal code but also one of the nation's charter itself. Alber Saber had very much wanted to have his say on the matter, but did not get the chance. Although he should have been released as soon as his bail was posted immediately following the December 12 sentence, he was held for unexplained reasons until December 17: too late to cast his ballot in the December 15 round of the referendum in Cairo. His appeal trial has been scheduled for January 26. (ANSAmed).

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED © Copyright ANSA