An Egyptian blogger was convicted Thursday and sentenced to four years in prison for insulting Islam, the Prophet Muhammad and Egypt’s president, sending a chill through fellow Internet writers who fear a government crackdown.
Abdel Kareem Nabil, a 22-year-old former student at Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, an Islamic institution, was a vocal secularist and sharp critic of conservative Muslims in his blog. He also lashed out often at Al-Azhar — the most prominent religious center in Sunni Islam — calling it “the university of terrorism” and accusing it of encouraging extremism.
His conviction brought a flood of condemnations from Amnesty International and other international and Egyptian rights group and stunned fellow bloggers.
“I am shocked,” said Wael Abbas, a blogger who writes frequently about police abuses and other human rights violations in Egypt. “This is a terrible message to anyone who intends to express his opinion and to bloggers in particular.”
Judge Ayman al-Akazi issued the verdict in a brief, five-minute session in a court in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. He sentenced Nabil to three years in prison for insulting Islam and the prophet and inciting sectarian strife and another year for insulting President Hosni Mubarak.
Nabil, wearing a gray T-shirt and sitting in the defendants pen, gave no reaction and his face remained still as the verdict was read. He made no comment to reporters as he was immediate led outside to a prison truck.
Seconds after he was loaded into the truck and the door closed, an Associated Press reporter heard the sound of a slap from inside the vehicle and a shriek of pain from Nabil.
His lawyer, Ahmed Seif el-Islam, said he would appeal the verdict, saying the ruling will “terrify other bloggers and will negative impact on the freedom of expression in Egypt.” Nabil had faced a possible maximum sentence of up to nine years in prison.
Egypt arrested a number of bloggers last year, most of them for connections to Egypt’s pro-democracy reform movement. Nabil was arrested in November, and while other bloggers were freed, Nabil was put on trial — a sign of the sensitivity of his writings on religion.
Alaa Abdel-Fattah, a pro-reform blogger who was detained for six weeks last year, said the conviction for insulting Mubarak will “have a chilling effect on the rest of the bloggers.”
“We (the Egyptian people) are enduring oppression, poverty and torture, so the least we can do is insult the president,” he said.
Amnesty International, the New York-based Human Rights Watch and the France-based press rights group Reporters Without Borders — along with a string of Egyptian rights group — warned that the ruling would hurt freedom of expression in Egypt, a top U.S. ally in the Mideast. Amnesty said it considered Nabil a “prisoner of conscience.”
Nabil, who used the blogger name Kareem Amer, was an unusually scathing critic of conservative Muslims — and his frequent attacks on Al-Azhar, where he was a law student, led to the university expelling him in March. Al-Azhar then pushed for prosecutors to bring him to trial. His writings also appeared on a Arabic Web magazine called “Modern Discussion.”
The judge said Nabil insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad with a piece he wrote in late 2005 after riots in which angry Muslim worshippers attacked a Coptic Christian church over a play put on by Christians deemed offensive to Islam.
“Muslims revealed their true ugly face and appeared to all the world that they are full of brutality, barbarism and inhumanity,” Nabil said of the riots. He called Muhammad and his 7th century followers, the Sahaba, “spillers of blood” for their teachings on warfare — a comment cited by the judge.
In a later essay, not cited by the court, Nabil clarified his comments, saying Muhammad was “great” but that his teachings on warfare and other issues should be viewed as a product of their times.
He blasted Al-Azhar, calling it the “other face of the coin of al-Qaida” and called for the university to be dissolved or turned into a secular institution. He said it “stuffs its students’ brains and turns them into human beasts … teaching them that there is no place for differences in this life” and criticized its policy of segregating male and female students.
In other posts, Nabil criticized Mubarak, writing at the time of presidential elections in 2005, “Let’s pledge allegiance to God’s representative and caliph in Egypt … the symbol of tyranny, Hosni Mubarak … Say goodbye to democracy for me.”
The Bush administration has not commented on Nabil’s trial, despite its past criticism of the arrests of Egyptian rights activists.