Egyptian authorities sentenced four Christian children and their teacher with blasphemy charges and prison time regarding a video mocking the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. "These children shouldn't face prison for expressing themselves, even with an immature joke," said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East director. "The continued prosecution of blasphemy cases in Egypt goes against the government's claim to be promoting a more inclusive vision of religion."
A juvenile minor offenses court in Minya sentenced three children on Feb. 25 to five years in prison and ordered the fourth youth to be placed in a juvenile facility for imitating Islamic prayer and the act of beheading in a 32-second video that their teacher filmed. The teacher was sentenced to three years imprisonment in a separate trial, reports Human Rights Watch.
Two relatives of the children told Human Rights Watch the teacher filmed the video during a trip in February 2015, shortly after a Libyan affiliate of ISIS released a video showing their beheading of 21 abducted Christians, 20 of them from Minya.
The juvenile court, in the town of Bani Mazar in Minya, sentenced Mueller Edward, 17; Bassem Hanna, 16; and Alber Ashraf, 16, to five years in prison, while ordering Clinton Yousef, 17, placed in a juvenile facility. Police had arrested them on April 9, 2015, after other students circulated the video and reported it to another teacher in the school.
The teenagers' lawyer said that a technical unit at Egypt's Radio and Television Union, the government body that oversees public broadcasting, reviewed the video and submitted a biased report to the court that offered opinions instead of simply stating the video's content. The lawyer asked the court several times to review the video to check the validity of the report's claims, but the judge did not respond.
Prosecutors charged the children under article 98(f) of Egypt's penal code, which outlaws contempt of religion, as well articles 160 and 161, concerning the public conduct of religious rituals, even though the video was filmed in private. The trial began in October 2015.
The relatives of Edward and Ashraf told Human Rights Watch the village mayor had called them in April and asked them to bring the youths to his house, where police were waiting to take them into custody. Edward's father said they thought this was intended as a temporary measure to calm tension in the village. He said that the government had deployed security forces in the village and around their houses for a few weeks to prevent further incidents.
Prosecutors interrogated the children after their arrest and ordered them detained pending investigation, reports Human Rights Watch.
The court renewed the pretrial detention orders until early June, when a judge ordered them released on a $1,280-bail each. Their lawyer told Human Rights Watch that the families could barely afford to pay.
"They are just teenagers," Edward's father told Human Rights Watch. "They were psychologically troubled by the killings of Coptic Christians in Libya and went for entertainment. They didn't deliberately intend any offense. How can you try someone for mocking ISIS."
The two relatives said authorities detained the children in Bani Mazar Police Station, in the same cells as adults and criminal suspects, violating Egypt's Child Law.
Egypt's Child Law, passed in 1996 and revised heavily in 2008, requires that children be detained separately from adults and also separated in detention based on the nature of their offense. The law states that officials who do not follow those requirements may be punished with prison and a fine. The law also requires the government to form a special prosecution and court system for children with social and educational staff.
The lawyer said that the teacher who filmed the video, Gad Yousef Younan, left his house with his wife and children after a "customary reconciliation" council decided to expel him from the village. Such reconciliation sessions are extra-legal tools typically overseen by officials from the security and religious establishments, and including senior family members that are used to resolve sectarian incidents. They frequently lead to illegal decisions, such as the forced eviction of Christian families, reports Human Rights Watch.
A 2015 report by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent group, counted 45 instances in which reconciliation sessions were used following sectarian clashes between 2011 and 2015. The group stated that such councils foster a pattern of state failure to protect citizens' rights.
More than 28 Egyptian rights groups and political parties condemned the rulings against the children and their teacher and called for the repeal of article 98(f), which has led to an increasing number of prosecutions for blasphemy under the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said it has documented at least nine cases in which 12 people were convicted for blasphemy-related charges in 2015, and that 11 cases remained pending. The cases involve both Sunni and Shia Muslims, Christians, and atheists.
Younan, who was charged under article 98(f), faced trial in a Bani Mazar minor offenses court, received a three-year sentence for contempt of religion but paid a $260 bail to remain free during his appeal.
The lawyer said that the court did not address or order an investigation of the events that led to Younan's forced eviction. Under article 63 of Egypt's constitution, forced eviction is a crime that "does not lapse by prescription."
The children received the maximum punishment under article 98(f), which ranges from a fine of between $70 to $130 up to a prison sentence of between six months and five years. The children and their teacher can appeal, but the children must turn themselves in to the police to do so.
Article 111 of the Child Law gives judges a wide range of disciplinary measures to use in children's minor offenses cases instead of prison, but the judge chose the harshest penalty, the lawyer said.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Egypt is a state party, guarantees the child's right to freedom of expression and that all children should be treated equally and without discrimination, regardless of factors including their or their family's religious background. The convention also requires that children should be detained and imprisoned only according to the law, as a last resort, and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party, guarantees freedom of expression and opinion. The United Nations Human Rights Committee, the expert body that interprets the ICCPR, noted in 2011 that "[p]rohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant."
"Mocking ISIS, or any religious group, with a childish joke is not a crime," Houry said. "Instead of giving in to retrograde views on blasphemy, Egyptian authorities should protect freedom of expression."