CAIRO – A Cairo court on Wednesday convicted a Coptic Christian blogger who shared an anti-Islam film on social networking sites and sentenced him to three years in prison for blasphemy and contempt of religion.
The case of Alber Saber is one of several seen by rights advocates as a campaign led by Egypt's ultraconservative Islamists to curb free expression. Many of those targeted in the campaign are Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's population of 85 million.
Saber was arrested Sept. 13, after neighbors complained he had shared on Facebook the amateur film made in the United States that sparked protests across the Muslim world. His arrest came during a wave of public outrage over the film, produced by an Egyptian-American Copt.
At the time, an angry mob surrounded Saber's house, calling for his death and accusing him of heresy, atheism and of promoting the "Innocence of Muslims" — the short film that portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womanizer and buffoon.
Saber's verdict comes as Egypt has been plunged into a political crisis over a draft constitution. Islamist supporters say the charter is a step toward stability while critics warn it will open the door to increased suppression of freedom in the name of religion.
In announcing the verdict, the court in Cairo said Saber can be released on a bail pending his appeal.
Amnesty International condemned the verdict and said it considered Saber "a prisoner of conscience detained solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression." The London-based group also demanded Saber be freed immediately and that all charges against him be dropped.
"This is an outrageous verdict and sentence for a person whose only 'crime' was to post his opinions online," said Amnesty's Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.
"The court should have thrown the case out on the first day, yet now he's been branded as having insulted religion," added Sahraoui, deputy chief of Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa program.
Last month, another Egyptian court convicted in absentia seven other Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor, sentencing them to death on charges linked to the "Innocence of Muslims."
The charges were largely symbolic because the defendants, most of who live in the United States, are all outside Egypt and are thus unlikely to ever face the sentence. The man behind the anti-Islam film, Mark Basseley Youssef, was among those convicted. He was sentenced in a California court in November to one year in federal prison for probation violations in an unrelated matter.