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Egyptian convert regularly abused, attorney says

ISTANBUL, Turkey (BP) — Authorities in Egypt are regularly beating and dragging across a concrete prison floor noted convert Bishoy Armia Boulous, formerly known as Mohammed Hegazy, his attorney said.

Imprisoned by Egyptian authorities on trumped-up charges for photographing Muslim attacks on Christians and then held illegally after his sentence was complete, Boulous is beaten several times a week, said attorney Karam Ghobriel.

Prison officials also have forcibly shaved Boulous’ head, a punishment and harassment technique normally reserved for violent felons, he said.

The physical abuse has continued in addition to Boulous’ illegal detention, Ghobriel said. Boulous remains in Tora Prison despite completion of a one-year sentence that should have ended in December for a charge of spreading false information meant to “cause harm or damage to the public interest” of Egypt, he said.

Ghobriel said he thinks the beatings were ordered from outside the prison and are meant to do one thing — break Boulous’ spirit.

“They’re beating him to humiliate him, hoping he will change his mind, hoping he will go back to the way he was instead of insisting on Christianity,” he said.

In response to the beatings and a host of other legal irregularities, Ghobriel filed a formal complaint earlier this month with Hasham Barakat, Egypt’s attorney general. The attorney identified Boulous’ main assailant by name and called on Barakat to protect Hegazy’s “rights and freedoms.”

“The accused ended his sentence on the second of December 2014 by law, and he is now being kept in prison illegally,” the complaint read. “In addition to that, he is being continuously beaten and dragged [over prison floors] in Tora Prison by Officer Ahmed Fauzy.”

Ghobriel, who visited Boulous twice last week in prison, said the guards had beaten him recently. The attorney said he finds the treatment appalling.

“According to the law and the constitution, any accused person should be treated in a respectful way as a human, because the law does not tell prison workers to ‘beat them, drag them or torture them,'” he said.

Egyptian authorities arrested Boulous on Dec. 2, 2013, at a café in Minya, about 160 miles south of Cairo, and accused him of working for The Way TV, a Coptic Christian-owned, U.S.-based television channel that broadcasts into Egypt via satellite. The government claimed that Boulous was contributing to a “false image” that there was violence against Christians in Egypt.

The arrest took place during one of the worst waves of anti-Christian attacks in the history of the country. The spree of violence, documented at length by numerous journalists, included public kidnappings, assaults, destruction of property and attacks on several church buildings that mobs of militant Muslims burned to the ground. Much of the violence took place in Minya Province.

From the start, human rights activists said the charges against Boulous were without merit. In another official complaint, filed with Barakat’s office in March, 18 different human rights groups from Egypt and around the world stated that the charges were “clearly related to his religious conversion.”

“Mr. Boulous’ detention, treatment, and prosecution blatantly violate Egypt’s recently established constitution, which clearly states that ‘freedom of belief is absolute,'” their complaint read. “His case is also a violation of international agreements to which Egypt has been party for decades.”

Internal documents from the Ministry of Interior (MOI) obtained by Morning Star News show that during the time of his arrest, the MOI was employing at least one informant to follow Boulous, who was identified as a convert. The same documents showed that when officials arrested Boulous, they also arrested three female journalists. All of them, like Boulous, were documenting “sectarian attacks.”

Unlike Boulous, however, all the other reporters were questioned and then released.

Boulous, 31, left Islam when he was 16 years old. In 2002, among other instances of persecution, he was jailed and tortured by the Egyptian government’s internal police, known as the State Security Investigations Services (SSI).

On Aug. 2, 2007, when Boulous was 25 and he and his wife, also a convert from Islam, were expecting their first child, Boulous filed a lawsuit to force the Ministry of Interior to change the religious affiliation listed on his state-mandated national identification card from Muslim to Christian. Boulous said in 2007 he filed the case mainly to protect his soon-to-be-born child from being forced to suffer the same persecution he experienced.

In response to the lawsuit, some Islamic leaders in Egypt called for Boulous’ death, and he suffered through numerous attacks, including having his home set on fire by a group of militant Muslims.

In 2009, two lawyers supported by a group of Islamists sued Boulous for allegedly defaming Islam after he filed his lawsuit, which became highly public and controversial. The blasphemy charge was based on his accusers’ assertion that the very act of leaving Islam cast the religion into ill repute. The lawsuit was never settled and, according to Ghobriel, passed the Egyptian statute of limitations and became inactive.

Human rights groups in Egypt and around the world have complained that Boulous’ current case has been riddled with legal irregularities.

Six months after he was arrested, a judge on June 18, 2014 found Boulous guilty on three charges stemming from the 2013 arrest, sentenced him to five years in prison and levied a fine of 500 Egyptian pounds (U.S. $70) against him. Ghobriel immediately filed an appeal and petitioned for bail for Boulous, who remained imprisoned the whole time he was awaiting trial.

On July 20, 2014, a judge found in Boulous’ favor and ordered he be released on bail, but in the 24 hours that state prosecutors had to comply with the judge’s order, the SSI took Boulous into custody to be interrogated in Cairo for the 2009 charges.

On Dec. 28, while Boulous was in SSI custody, an appeals judge upheld the charge of spreading false information meant to “cause harm or damage to the public interest” and sentenced him to a year in prison. He dismissed the two other charges against him.

Because Boulous had already spent more than a year in prison waiting for his trial to take place and his appeal to be heard, he should have been immediately released at the conclusion of the appeal hearing, his attorney said. Instead, the SSI held him, officials said, because they were investigating the blasphemy charges filed against him — charges that the SSI itself revived. On Jan. 21, however, when the six-month time limit allowed under Egyptian criminal procedure to investigate the charges expired, the SSI still refused to release Boulous.

“The investigation into the charges finished a long time ago,” Ghobriel said. “And as his attorney, I am allowed by law to examine the charging documents before the case goes to court; however, the investigator in charge is refusing to let me see or copy the documents related to the blasphemy case.”

Safwat Samaan, chairman of Nation Without Borders and leading human rights activist in Egypt, said the persecution of Boulous shows the hypocrisy of the Egyptian government. Officials proclaim freedom in speeches and on paper, he said, while they deny rights in practice. The government speaks of religious freedom and equality while enforcing religious homogeneity upon the Egyptian people and stifling any religious dissent.

“Article 64 from the 2014 Constitution guarantees freedom of belief, freedom to worship, and the right to build places of worship for the ‘Heavenly Religions,'” Samaan said. “This is a right provided by the law, and we cannot discuss Hegazy’s case away from the Egyptian Constitution that was voted on in January 2014.”

The Constitution is higher than the government, but several government departments stand against Boulous’s case, “as if its role is to protect a certain religion and lead the citizens into paradise, ‘Al Janna,’ or throw them into hell,” Samman said. “Religion is an issue of individual conscience, and everybody in Egypt has the right to choose what religion to believe or not to believe. Belief in God cannot be enforced or organized by law.”

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