CAIRO – 24 April 2018: As the trial of novelist Ahmed Naji has been brought to a close following the Criminal Court’s verdict to fine him with LE 20,000 and revoke his earlier two-year imprisonment sentence, the potential occurrences of similar cases still looms overhead.
In his re-trial, Cairo Criminal Court overturned the two-year imprisonment sentence handed down to the novelist Ahmed Naji over his sexually explicit novel “Estikhdam Al Hayah” (Using Life) and fined him LE 20,000
“The conviction of Naji and most of the artists that get embattled in similar cases is mainly based on article 10 of the constitution that enshrines the values of the institution of the Egyptian family that contentious literary works may pose a threat to, while article 67 of the constitution also mandates that the state preserves the freedom of creativity and expression and prohibits all forms of punishments in such cases,” Mahmoud Othman, Naji’s lawyer, told Egypt today on Wednesday.
He added that based on article of 67, Naji’s appeal was accepted and he was later exonerated.
“The thing is, many people seek fame by ruffling some feathers to bring artists in courts,” Otham said, adding that most similar cases become entirely scrapped as initial investigations are not evidence-based.
Egypt Today provides a look back at the case of the 33-year-old novelist prior to the Criminal Court verdict
The case fates back to 2015, when a reader of state-run Akhbar Al-Adab lodged a complaint against Naji claiming that he was offended by an excerpt from the novel “Istkhdam el-Hayah” (Using life) for containing explicit content.
In his complaint, the reader said that once he read the excerpt, “his heartbeat got quicker and his blood pressure lowered.”
In October 2015, Central Cairo Prosecution referred Naji and Editor in Chief of Akhbar el-Adab (Literature News) to the Criminal Court, stating that there was an abundance of evidence that confirm the involvement of the defendants in hurting public morality.
Ahmed Najy's Using life is being displayed at a Bookstore in Zurich - Official Facebook page of Najy's Using Life
On Feb. 20, 2016, Boulaq Appeal Court approved sentencing Ahmad Naji to a two-year imprisonment term for violating public decency and fining him with LE 20, 000.
Following the controversial verdict, a trending hashtag that bore the name of “Against the Prosecution of the Imagination,” was launched alongside a petition campaign signed by more than 600 journalists and intellectuals.
The press syndicate has also demanded the release of Naji adding that "the trial of fictional works should be done before the courts of the critics and people, and not in the court of law.”
In its issue released on Feb. 23, Cairo newspaper left its front page blank and wrote “No to the Trial of Imagination” at the bottom of it.
Former presidential candidate and human rights activist Khalid Ali, along with popular activists and lawyers; Mahmoud Othman and Yasmine Hossam and Mokhtar Munir were the solicitors of Naji, confirming that his imprisonment is unconstitutional.
On July 16, 2016, Court of Appeal Boulaq Abu Alaa rejected the appeal filed by Naji, while the Court of Cassation accepted his appeal and suspended the two-year prison term and set a court hearing on Dec. 18, 2016 to consider and study his appeal.
Since, Naji has won long streak of successful subsequent appeals.
“The Public Prosecution referred the two defendants in line with articles 178 and 200 of the penal code, which requires the occurrence of intent to harm the public modesty or spread immorality and vice, which was not the case for Naji,” The court’s ruling that acquitted Najy said.
Given it is a literary work that was inspired by the imagination of the author, the phrases that the prosecution deemed as inappropriate, were put within context when the novel was written by his own imagination, it added.
Naji is not the first:
In December 2017, the General Prosecution’s decision to refer the Oscar-nominated movie “Sheikh Jackson” to an Azhar-led committee to review and provide its opinion on it caused raging debates as to whether it could lead to further limitations on the freedom of expression and creativity.
The General Prosecution’s decision came after a legal complaint filed by lawyer Abdel Rahman Abdel Barry against the filmmakers of “Sheikh Jackson”.
A scene from movie Sheikh Jackson - Official Facebook page
The lawyer, who serves as secretary general of the Bar Association’s Freedoms Committee, accused the movie of hurting Islam and damaging Egypt’s reputation abroad.
“Where is the freedom of creativity?” Amr Salama, director of the movie, wrote on his official Facebook page after being summoned and later questioned by the General Prosecution about his Oscar-nominated movie.
Salama further wondered if religious bodies will then be the ones responsible for evaluating movies instead of the experts in the field. “And should we then look at our movies from a religious perspective?"
“The decision of the General Prosecution to refer the case to an Azhar committee is an implied threat to thinkers and virtuous people to make them back down from tackling controversial topics and to be more cautious about the types of topics they go public with,” film critic Ramy Abdel Razik told Egypt today.
Also, Rana El-Sobky, the producer of the movie Rijata, was sentenced to one year in prison and fined LE 10,000 over screening inappropriate sexually charged scenes following a complaint filed by contentious lawyer Samir Sabry.
Official poster of Movie "Regata" - Facebook Page
Sobky was later acquitted. “I believed in the integrity of the Egyptian judiciary. The decision is a victory to the freedom of creativity and expression.”
In exclusive statements, lawyer Mokhtar Moniur told Egypt Today that there is currently an ongoing military trial facing a poet called Galal el-Behiry on charges of insulting the military establishment in his poem.
The poem was displayed during the 2018 book fair in the Dar Dad publishing housing, which later apologized for publishing the poem.