PEN International continues to call for the release of Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji, who was sentenced in February 2016 to two years in prison for ‘violating public modesty’ in relation to the publication of excerpts from his 2014 novel Istikhdam al-Hayat (The Use of Life) in Akhbar al-Adab magazine, also in 2014. Naji has now served almost seven months of his sentence. Two motions for a stay of execution filed by his lawyers have been rejected and Naji will therefore spend his birthday, 15 September, behind bars.
A successful stay of execution would have allowed Naji to be free pending his appeal. A date has not yet been set for his appeal, despite it being filed in late April. PEN International is continuing to call for Naji’s release as his imprisonment is a violation of the right to freedom of expression, as provided under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party, and under articles 65 and 67 Egypt’s constitution, which guarantee freedom of thought and opinion and freedom of artistic and literary creation.
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Urgent: As his birthday is tomorrow, 15 September, please tweet, write letters of support and solidarity, or send him a birthday card. You can tweet your messages using the #NajiBirthday hashtag, or you can send a letter or birthday card to email@example.com or to PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK.
Please also send appeals to the Egyptian authorities:
|President||Minister of Justice
Mohamed Hossam Abdel Rahim
And copy to the Embassy of Egypt in your country. You can find embassy addresses here
***Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN International if sending appeals after 14 October***
Please inform PEN of any action you take, and of any responses you receive.
In 2014, Naji’s novel, The Use of Life ( الحياة استخدام) (Dar al-Tanweer, Beirut), was serialised in the literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. Chapter six narrates an experience of sex and drug use. The chapter can be read here. The Use of Life has been described as a hybrid between graphic novel and prose fiction. Sex and sexuality are one of the major themes, narrated through the story of Bassam, a man lost inside a ‘spider web of emotional frustration and failure.’ As with any foreign printed book, it was approved by the Publications Censorship Authority before any copies were permitted to enter Egypt through the ports.
On October 31, 2015, a complaint was lodged at the Criminal Court by a reader in relation to chapter six. Naji, alongside editor of Akhbar al-Adab magazine Tarek El Taher, was charged with publishing ‘obscene sexual content’ and ‘defaming public morals’, under Article 178 of the Penal Code which provides for up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine for making, holding, distributing, leasing, pasting, or displaying, for the purpose of trade, ‘printed matter, manuscripts, drawings, advertisements, carved or engraved pictures, manual or automatic photographic drawings, symbolic signs or other objects or pictures in general, if they are against public morals’. El Taher was also charged with failing to carry out his duties as an editor.
Ahmed Naji was originally acquitted at a hearing on 2 January 2016; however, the prosecution appealed the acquittal and he was sentenced on February 20, 2016 to two years’ imprisonment by a court in Cairo. The court also fined El Taher approximately $1,250. Naji was arrested at the hearing and immediately transferred to prison. His lawyers entered a plea to suspend his sentence on 1 March 2016, but this was rejected. On March 7, the court released the reasoning behind its verdict, which according to the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy stated that creative expression is limited by religion, tradition, and moral values. On 16 July, the Bulaq Abu al-Aila Misdemeanor Appeals Court ruled against Naji’s motion for a stay of execution for his sentence, and again on August 27.
Over 500 Egyptian writers and artists have signed a statement in solidarity with Naji, and in May over 120 international writers, editors and artists joined a PEN America statement calling on President Sisi to drop the charges against Naji, and to release him immediately.
The situation for freedom of expression in Egypt has been on the decline in recent years. PEN has been monitoring many cases of writers and journalists who have been jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly including during journalistic or human rights work. For example, in January 2016, the poet Fatima Naoot was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on charges of ‘contempt of Islam’ and ‘disturbing public peace’ for a comment made on Facebook criticising a traditional Islamic celebration. In the same month, poet Omar Hazek was banned from leaving Egypt to accept a PEN/Oxfam Novib award for freedom of expression. Author Karam Saber and Facebook user Karim al-Banna have both received prison sentences in separate cases for expressing their opinions on religion.
Restrictions on freedom of expression in Egypt have also been accompanied by a crackdown on cultural houses, including several raids on a publishing house and an art gallery in 2015 as well as on human rights defenders, with NGO workers repeatedly being summoned for questioning, banned from travelling and having their assets frozen. For example, female activist Mozn Hassan was banned from travel in June 2016 as she tried to leave Egypt to attend a human rights convention.