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Egypt: 'increasing intolerance' of dissent and peaceful opposition denounced

‘We are seeing arrests and charges for literally nothing more than cracking a few jokes’ - Ann Harrison

Today’s charges against yet another Egyptian comedian for “defaming religion” are part of an alarming new escalation of politically-motivated judicial harassment and arrests in the country, Amnesty International said this evening.

Earlier today stand-up comedian Ali Qandil was interrogated at the public prosecutor’s office on charges of “defamation of religion” on Bassem Youssef’s satirical television show. Qandil denied insulting Islam, emphasising that he poked fun at the exploitation of religion, rather than the religion itself.  He was released on bail.

In a mounting crackdown on freedom of expression, up to 33 people have been targeted within the last two weeks, with arrests and charges. Some have been charged with what seem to be politically-motivated or trumped-up criminal charges. Others are charged with “insulting the President” or “defamation” of religion for actions that should not be criminalised as they merely amount to the peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.  

Those targeted have included opposition activists, bloggers, and a high-profile opposition politician. Some have been targeted for supposed crimes that occurred months ago, or in one case more than a year ago. Most have been released on bail but will remain under investigation.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Ann Harrison said:

“We are seeing arrests and charges for literally nothing more than cracking a few jokes. This is a truly alarming sign of the government’s increasing intolerance of any criticism whatsoever.  

“There is no sign of this campaign of judicial harassment coming to an end. The government is seriously redoubling its efforts to stamp out freedom of expression.

“The government is trying to destroy freedom of expression when it should be protecting the peaceful dissent and political participation that brought it into power.”

The charge sheets:

Bassem Youssef - “Egypt’s Jon Stewart” and host of satirical show “Al-Bernameg”:
Turned himself in on 31 March after a warrant was issued for his arrest, and was released on bail for 15,000 Egyptian pounds. The charges: a range of accusations that include “insulting the president” and “defamation of religion”. Investigations are ongoing. The crime: Youssef’s show frequently pokes fun at the Egyptian authorities and the exploitation of religion for political ends. Most recently, he mocked President Morsi’s choice of graduation hat during a ceremony in Pakistan and his poor command of English.

Ali Qandli - stand-up comedian:
Turned himself in for questioning on 3 April after a warrant was issued for his arrest. He was released on bail after questioning. The charges: defamation of religion. Investigations are ongoing. The crime: Qandli appeared on Bassem Youssef’s show and made jokes about the way in which religion is practised by some in Egypt, using the example of Friday prayers and the call to prayer.

Hamdi Al-Fakharany - former parliamentarian and opposition politician from Mahalla:
Known for exposing corruption during Hosni Mubarak’s era and for political run-ins with the Muslim Brotherhood, Al-Fakharany was arrested on 26 March and detained incommunicado for 36 hours. He has been released on bail for 50,000 Egyptian pounds. The charges: inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood during protests commemorating the second anniversary of the “25 January Revolution” in Mahalla, during which protesters criticised the president and ruling party. The crime: Amnesty fears the case against him may be politically-motivated and is unaware of any evidence that he used or advocated violence. Meanwhile, no investigations have taken place into his complaint that he was beaten by the president’s supporters during demonstrations against the Constitutional Declaration in November.

Ahmed Anwar - video blogger:
Police officers went to his home to arrest him on 17 March. He is due to face trial on 4 May. The charges: “insulting the Ministry of Interior”. The crime: posting a video online making fun of police officers giving an award to an actress, calling them “the ministry of belly dancers”.  The comical video, showing police officers dancing, criticises police brutality and impunity for human rights abuses. The video was posted on his blog over a year ago, in March 2012.
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Cairo activists:
Trial proceedings have been initiated against 12 people, expected to appear in court on 9 May. These include prominent activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah, his sister Mona Seif Al Islam who launched the No to Military Trials initiative, and Ahmed Abdallah, a leading activist with the 6 April Youth Movement. The charges: these relate to the burning of the headquarters of former presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq last May. Ahmed Shafiq has already publicly withdrawn his complaint about the fire. Alaa Abdel Fattah and four other opposition activists also face charges relating to protests at the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo on 22 March. The crime: Amnesty fears the charges are politically-motivated due to their opposition activism.

Alexandria activists:
Lawyer and well-known opposition activist Mahinour Masri was among 13 people arrested on 29 March after a sit-in by lawyers at an Alexandria police station. They were released the following day, but investigations are ongoing. The charges: insulting government employees on duty, insulting officials, and attempting to break into a police station. The crime: Amnesty believes Masri’s arrest and charges are trumped-up and politically-motivated due to her opposition activism and work to expose human rights violations.

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