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Blasphemy charges still shackle Egyptian convert

ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP) — A noted convert in Egypt who was sentenced to five years in prison for documenting attacks on Christians has won a partial victory on appeal but remains in jail on prior blasphemy charges.

An appeals judge ruled Dec. 28 that Bishoy Armia Boulous, known as Mohammed Hegazy until his conversion in 1998, was not guilty on a charge of spreading information meant to “cause harm or damage to the public interest” and not guilty on the related charge of spreading false news “bound to weaken” Egypt’s prestige or harm the “country’s national interests.”

Boulous, however, was found guilty of an unidentified charge and sentenced to one year in prison. The specific article of Egypt’s Criminal Code that Boulous allegedly violated — possibly inciting sectarian strife — was not revealed, but according to the law the judge must do so in sentencing documents to be issued later this month.

Because Boulous, now in his early 30s, spent more than a year in prison waiting for his appeal to be heard, he should have been released at the conclusion of the Dec. 28 hearing but instead was held without an opportunity to post bail stemming from blasphemy charges filed against him in 2009 by two Islamist lawyers.

Attorneys believe the state, in effect, is punishing Boulous for his conversion by holding him past the charges’ statutory limit and doing so without any possibility of bail.

Karam Ghobriel, one of Boulous’s attorneys, filed a complaint about the denial of bail for Boulous. By comparison, the incendiary Muslim cleric Abo Islam, who was charged with blasphemy for ripping up and burning a Bible during a 2012 protest in Cairo in front of the U.S. Embassy, was allowed to remain free during his trial and appeal. The cleric eventually was sentenced to five years in prison. He is the only Muslim in Egypt to be convicted of blaspheming Christianity.

Ghobriel and human rights activists familiar with the case have charged the government with targeting Boulous at the time of his arrest in early December 2013. Internal documents of the Ministry of Interior show that it employs informants to follow converts from Islam. One such informant was following Boulous in Minya when he was arrested.

An official listed as Lt. Amer Hassan reported that “one of our secret sources called and told us that one of the converts, who is called Bishoy Armia Boulous, whose previous name was Mohammed Hegazy, is present at the Agricultural Association in Minya, and covering some of the religious violence and persecution of Copts.” Hassen noted “how dangerous the situation is” and was accompanied by another officer to investigate.

Hassan arrested Boulous at a café at the Agricultural Association in Minya, about 160 miles south of Cairo, confiscating a camera, four flash drives and a notebook. Officials claimed Boulous was working for The Way TV, a Coptic Christian-owned, U.S.-based television channel that broadcasts into Egypt via satellite, and was contributing to a “false image” that there was violence against Christians in Minya.

Christians in Minya faced a well-documented spree of violence that month, including public kidnappings, assaults and attacks on several church buildings that mobs of militant Muslims burned to the ground.

On the day of his arrest, officials interrogated Boulous along with three women, all of them journalists who, like Boulous, were documenting “sectarian attacks,” the interrogation documents state. Unlike Boulous, the other reporters were only questioned and then released.

Ghobriel, the defense attorney, stated that when officials interrogated Boulous they already had a complete dossier on his religious life. The 20-page interrogation report supports Ghobriel’s claim, relaying detailed facts about Boulous’ conversion at age 16 and his baptism. In all, Boulous’ conversion or the earlier blasphemy charges against him were mentioned nine times.

After being held for six months, a judge sentenced Boulous to five years in prison on June 18 of last year and levied a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (US$70) for what he called “disturbing the peace by broadcasting false information,” a single charge that had replaced the three initial charges for his reporting.

Boulous’s attorneys immediately filed for the right to appeal, which was granted. Ghobriel petitioned for bail and on July 20 a judge ordered security officials to release Boulous. But in the 24 hours that prosecutors had to comply with the judge’s order, security officials from the Interior Ministry took Boulous into custody to be interrogated in Cairo.

The 2009 blasphemy charge against Boulous was filed by two lawyers supported by a group of Islamists, charging him with defaming Islam after he filed what became a very public lawsuit in 2007 to force the Ministry of Interior to change the religious affiliation on his state-mandated national identification card from Muslim to Christian. The very act of leaving Islam , the accusers contended, had cast Islam into ill repute.

Boulous became an extremely controversial figure, and his face was plastered on newspapers and magazines across the country. Boulous said he filed his lawsuit to change his identification mainly to protect his soon-to-be-born child from suffering the same persecution he had experienced. Several well-known sheiks targeted Boulous, calling for his death and forcing him and his wife into hiding.

Ghobriel told Morning Star News that the Ministry of Interior had charged Boulous with violating Article 98f, defaming a revealed religion, and violating Article 161, perverting a holy book or ridiculing a religious celebration. He had also been charged with two counts of violating Article 102, inciting public sedition.

Religious freedom is guaranteed under Egyptian law but is limited by various interpretations of sharia (Islamic law), which can override national law. While it is easy for someone in Egypt to convert to Islam, it is impossible for a Muslim to legally convert to Christianity.

According to Egyptian law, every citizen age 16 or older must carry a state-issued ID card necessary for opening a bank account, enrolling children in school or starting a business, among other activities. Religious identity also determines many of the civil laws to which one is subject.

As the case continued, Boulous’ home was set on fire, he was arrested and several times SSI officials beat him while in custody and, in 2009, lawyers Mohammed Fathy Al-Shaheedy and Mohammad Adly Kadry filed the defamation charges against Boulous.

In April 2010, Boulous essentially lost his case when an appeals court suspended it indefinitely in order to wait for the country’s constitutional court to rule on a previous case dealing with religious identity. But before that case could be resolved, the 2011 revolution happened, an elected Islamist government that became overwhelmingly unpopular was forced out in a military-backed popular coup and two constitutions were written and voted on by referendum.

Ghobriel said Boulous told of being tortured during his current detention. He has also reported that prison officials are housing him with violent felons, increasing the risks to his safety. No court hearing has been set for the 2009 blasphemy charges.

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  • Staff/Morning Star News