On Saturday 20 February, the Egyptian author Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for ‘violating public modesty’ with the content of his book. Tarek al-Taher, the editor of the weekly literary newspaper in which the novel was published, was ordered to pay a fine of 10,000 Egyptian Pounds (approx. 900 GBP). These sentences violate the author’s and the editor’s rights to freedom of expression, protected under the Egyptian constitution and international human rights law.
ARTICLE 19 calls for the convictions against Naji and Taher to be overturned, for Naji to be immediately released and for the penal code to be amended in line with the constitution and international human rights standards.
This conviction violates the rights of the individuals concerned and will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Egypt more generally given that journalists, artists and human rights defenders are routinely targeted for their legitimate expression.
Background to the case
Naji’s novel, ‘Using Life’, was previously approved by the Egypt’s censorship authority for distribution in Egypt. However, after a chapter of the novel was published in ‘Akhbar Al Adab’ on 3 August 2014, an individual reader took out a complaint against the author and the editor, complaining that the text caused him to have heart palpitations and his blood pressure to fall. Naji and Taher were charged under Article 178 and Article 200 of the Egyptian Penal Code, which stipulate a maximum sentence of two years in prison for printed materials which violate public morality, and a maximum sentence of a 10,000 Egyptian Pound fine for editors who publish material that offends public morality. The trial began in November 2015, and the pair were acquitted by the lower court on 2 January 2016. The prosecution then appealed and a guilty verdict was issued by the appeals court on 20 February, with the maximum sentence of two years handed down to Naji for authoring the text, and a maximum fine of 10,000 Egyptian Pounds to Taher for publishing it.
Violation of the Egyptian Constitution
Adopted after a referendum in January 2014, the Egyptian constitution protects freedom of expression in Article 65, stating that: “Every person shall have the right to express his/her opinion verbally, in writing, through imagery, or by any other means of expression and publication”. Furthermore, Article 67 specifically protects artistic expression and stipulates that there must be no prison sentences for crimes related to the publication of literature: “No freedom restricting sanction may be inflicted for crimes committed because of the publicity of artistic, literary or intellectual product.” Many Egyptian laws still need to be updated to ensure the implementation of the new constitution. In this case, Articles 178 and 200 of the Penal Code clearly undermine the rights guaranteed in the Constitution and have led to a conviction which violates the right to freedom of expression.
The convictions of Naji and Taher also violate the right to freedom of expression under international law. Egypt is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in which Article 19 states that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression […] either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.” In an official comment on Article 19 (General Comment 34) in 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee clarified that even expression that is deeply offensive may be protected.
ARTICLE 19 calls for the conviction against Naji and Taher to be overturned and for Naji to be released immediately. The Egyptian government should take steps to amend laws in contradiction with the new constitution and its commitments under international human rights law, in particular Article 178 and 200 of the Penal Code.