ISTANBUL, Turkey – A young Christian man in Upper Egypt accused of blaspheming Islam for "liking" a Facebook page was sentenced Tuesday (June 24) to six years in prison, shocking the Coptic community and other Facebook users.
Judge Hazim Hany of Armant Criminal Court found Kerolos Shouky Attallah, 29, of Al-Mahamid village near Luxor, guilty of violating two articles of the Egyptian Penal Code – Article 98F, defaming a divinely revealed religion, and Article 176, inciting sectarian violence.
Attallah was charged for "liking" an Arabic-language Facebook page administered by an anonymous group of Christian converts known as the Knights of the Cross. His attorney, Mohamed Ahmed Abd-Alaal, said Attallah did not make any comments on the site, share any of the postings or upload anything to it. Attallah promptly removed his name from the page once he realized the Facebook page offended some Muslims.
The guilty verdict and the severity of the sentence came as a surprise, said Safwat Samaan, chairman of Nation Without Borders, a human rights and development group headquartered in Luxor.
"The sentence today was a shock not just to Kerolos but to everyone who uses Facebook in Egypt," Samaan said. "Any person who uses Facebook in Egypt and presses 'Like' on any page … can be put into prison for six years."
Abd-Alaal told Morning Star News that the cause of Islamist anger in Al-Mahamid wasn't a satirical cartoon about the Salafi movement but religious extremism and oversensitivity.
"Nobody could upset Christ or Muhammad by these comments; the accusation came out of nowhere," said Abd-Alaal, a Sunni Muslim.
The Knights of the Cross Facebook page was designed to provide Arabic-speaking converts from Islam – many forced to live alone and in hiding – a cyber-place to encourage each other and safely discuss the Bible. Members also post essays about Christian apologetics and entries about perceived errors and conflicts in the Koran.
The number of years in prison Attallah received for each charge will be released within 30 days. An appeal is planned for next month.
It is unknown what day Attallah "liked" the Knights of the Cross Facebook page. Attallah obtained a cell phone sometime in May and started his own Facebook page soon thereafter. Days later, Muslims in his village became aware that he had "liked" the offending page, and by May 28, they printed and distributed leaflets demanding vengeance against him. One leaflet read, "You will not be men if you don't kick him out of your village," according to Samaan.
The Muslims tried to attack Attallah at his home the next day, but security authorities intervened by arresting Attallah. Authorities did not arrest any of the Muslims involved in the attack or those who incited it with the leaflets. Up until the day before the sentencing, Muslims were intermittently attacking Christian-owned homes and businesses, using the Facebook site as an excuse.
Human rights activists regard courts in and around Luxor as predisposed against those accused of committing blasphemy, human rights activists have said. Area Christians are disproportionately accused of committing blasphemy, and sentences are severe and swift while evidence, testimony and legal procedure that would exonerate the accused are ignored.
"When Copts are accused of blasphemy, the courts have to act as fast as they can," Samaan said. "But when Copts are kidnapped, Copts' land is stolen, or Copts are being killed … the law is not used at all."
Historically, Samaan said, judges in Luxor Province in Upper Egypt have been very aggressive in prosecuting blasphemy cases, handing down sentences well above statutory limits.
Exacerbating the problems Attallah has to endure is his family's financial situation. The legal fees have been ruinous, Samaan said. Also, in most prison systems across the Middle East, families are expected to bring food to augment the rations prisoners receive. On a recent visit to the prison, Attallah's father brought him three bottles of water and a bag of potato chips.
"When will they stop persecuting Christians?" Samaan said. "When will the Copts stop paying the price and being sacrificed for every revolution? When will the Copts stop being a scapegoat and a target for every extremist in the country?"