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Egyptian activists, academics, lawyers, and non-governmental organizations came together on October 10, 2009 to denounce a number of Hesba cases brought against activists, artists, and academics in Egypt. Hesba cases are lawsuits filed against individuals or organizations that are accused of insulting God and can only be filed by Muslims. The Arab Network for Human Rights released a report earlier this month criticizing the quantity of Hesba cases that were being brought in Egyptian courts. Supporters of the campaign against Hesba assert, “an opinion should never drag anyone to court.”

The arrest of Hassan Hanafi and Sayed El Qemany were the final impetus for the campaign. Hanafi and El Qemany are Egyptian academics whose research on reinterpretations of Islamic history and critiques of political Islam incited protests among conservative Islamists. Both were accused of apostasy and are to be brought in front of Egyptian courts in Hesba cases.

While Hesba cases are not unique to Egypt, they are the most prevalent there. This fall, Egyptian courts have chosen to hear more Hesba cases than ever before. Although the Prosecutor General has the right to limit the number of Hesba cases that make it to court, individuals continue to file hundreds of complaints. The Prosecutor General has legitimized these complaints by allowing many of them to proceed to full-fledged hearings.

Those who file Hesba cases often use it to persecute individuals working in academia, science, politics, art, and cinema. By permitting Hesba cases to come into court, the state gives these complaints a legal basis. Numerous writers, intellectuals, filmmakers, and activists have been prosecuted in court. Among them are famed Egyptian feminist, Nawal El Saadawi, who exiled herself to America after repeated threats on her life, and Naguib Sawiris, a businessman who criticized the Egyptian constitution for allowing Islamic law to be a “major legislation resource.”

Punishments for those prosecuted in Hesba courts go beyond fines and imprisonment, and include manipulating marriages, revoking citizenships, and physical violence. Egyptian professor Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid was forcibly divorced from his wife for his controversial perspectives on the Quran. The couple fled to the Netherlands after the ruling. In February, courts revoked the citizenships of Egyptians who were married to Israelis, because their marriages were claimed to be a threat to national security and Islam. An Egyptian film-maker, Enad El-Dighaidy, and an unveiled Egyptian actress were threatened with eighty lashes for “defaming the country,” but the trial court decided in favor of El-Dighaidy and the actress.

The Hesba cases are in violation of articles 15, 16, and 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These articles guarantee protection from arbitrary deprivation of nationality, the state protection of family and marriage, and the right to the freedom of expression and opinion.  Further, the Hesba cases are in violation of the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam, a declaration adopted by Member States of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. Specifically, these cases violate Article 5, the right to marriage, and Article 16, the right to enjoy the fruits of scientific, literary, artistic, or technical production. While these rights can be subverted by violations of Shar’ia Islamic law, Shar’ia stipulates that the state court does not have the religious authority to judge what are and what are not violations of Islamic law.

A campaign, initiated by the Arab Network for Human Rights and the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, is currently seeking more supporters to denounce efforts to limit the freedom of expression and research in Egypt. Through the campaign, these organizations hope to deter the use of legal mechanisms to persecute Egyptian intellectuals and scholars. So far, six other Arab human rights organizations and two lawyers have joined the campaign.  The Egyptian government has yet to respond to these organizations’ protests.