27 year-old blogger Alber Saber has been temporarily released on bail pending an appeal of his 12 December conviction. The former Coptic Christian, who has declared himself an atheist, was arrested three months ago on charges of blasphemy and contempt of religion.
His arrest came after his neighbours accused him of circulating a YouTube trailer for the anti-Islam film Innocence of Muslims on his Facebook page. Despite a lack of evidence against him, he has been sentenced to three years in prison.
During a wave of angry protests denouncing the amateur film deemed offensive to Islam, a crowd of bearded men had surrounded Saber’s home, calling for his death for his “heresy.” When Saber’s mother called the police for protection, the last thing she expected was that her son would be arrested instead of the attackers. She was forced to flee her home after the crowd threatened to burn down the house and has not been able to return since.
I met Saber last Sunday in the Fifth Settlement Court where he had gone to sign papers to appeal his case. His face was drawn and haggard but he was in high spirits after learning that he would be released the following day. Saber was handcuffed but that did not stop him flashing the victory sign. “Freedom comes at a high price,” he said.
The price for Saber’s freedom has been 90 days spent in a tiny cockroach-infested cell at Tora Prison, without light or fresh air. He also had a close brush with death when fellow inmates at El-Marg Prison (where he was initially imprisoned following his arrest) attacked him with a razor after learning about his lack of belief. Saber unzipped his white prison track suit to show me the brown scar still visible on his neck. He said that it would be a constant reminder of his ordeal.
In deeply conservative Egypt, the “A” word has always been taboo: Atheists are tolerated as long as they do not try to promulgate their views. Saber however, challenged the status quo. Not only had he administered a Facebook page for Egyptian atheists “promoting his extremist thoughts,” but he had also insulted “prophets and God himself ,” according to the prosecution.
Police who arrested him at his home on 13 September confiscated his computer and found comparative religion material on his bookshelf. Ahmed Ezzat, Saber’s lawyer, insists that his client did not post the offensive video and is “innocent of the charges.”
He suspects that Alber’s case was “simply an attempt to defuse people’s anger over the anti-Islam film.”
Saber’s case has raised concerns over freedom of expression in Egypt, post revolution. The draft constitution that has now been put to a popular referendum limits religious freedom to followers of the three Abrahamic faiths.
Moreover, the document stipulates that “religious practices are allowed as long as they do not disturb public order.” It also bans “insulting prophets” — a prohibition that analysts say may “open the door to arrests of bloggers and activists.’
Saber regrets that he was unable to vote “No” on the constitution as the referendum was held while he was still behind bars. If passed, he said, the new constitution will consolidate power for the Muslim Brotherhood and will “limit freedom of expression.”
Saber’s case has also prompted protest from several human rights advocates and groups. Amnesty International has criticised Saber’s detention arguing that he had simply been “peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression.” Reporters Without Borders has condemned the arrest as “a form of censorship”.
Saber’s mother, Kariman Meseeha, who was with him in court, fears that Christians, who make up an estimated 12 percent of the population, are being increasingly targeted under the Islamist government. She argued that unlike her son, Abu Islam—a radical Muslim cleric who had burnt a copy of the Bible during a rally protesting the anti-Islam film last September—had not been arrested pending his investigation.
Meseeha also cited the case of Bishoy Kamel, a Christian school teacher from the southern city of Sohag who was sentenced to six years in prison in September for posting cartoons online deemed offensive to Islam.
Two Coptic children have also been detained in a juvenile correction centre on blasphemy charges. She believes “political activism” was the real reason behind her son’s arrest, recalling that “state security officers had paid a dawn visit in January and ransacked our home.”
In the current political impasse, the case of Alber Saber is a litmus test for freedoms in the new Egypt. The young “prisoner of conscience” will appeal his case next month. The final verdict will not only determine Saber’s fate, it will also be telling of the level of freedom Egyptians can enjoy in their country, post-revolution.
President Morsy recently told Time Magazine that there can be no stability without freedom, democracy and equality. Whether or not he is truly committed to upholding these ideals remains to be seen.