CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Tuesday upheld a conviction against one of the Arab world's most famous comedians, sentencing him to jail for offending Islam in some of his most popular films.
The case against Adel Imam and others like it have raised concerns among some Egyptians that ultraconservative Muslims who made gains in recent elections after Hosni Mubarak's ouster last year are trying to foist their religious views on the entire country. Critics say the trend threatens to curb Egypt's vibrant film industry and freedom of speech.
Imam was sentenced to three months in jail and fined around $170 for insulting Islam in roles he played in movies such as "The Terrorist", in which he acted the role of a wanted terrorist who found refuge with a middle class, moderate family, and the film "Terrorism and Kabab. "
The actor was also found guilty for his 2007 role in "Morgan Ahmed Morgan," in which Imam played a corrupt businessman who tries to buy a university diploma. The film included a scene parodying bearded Muslim men wearing traditional Islamic clothing.
Author Alaa al-Aswany, whose best-seller "The Yacoubian Building" was turned into a film costarring Imam, said the court ruling sets Egypt back to the "darkness of the Middle Ages."
"This is an unimaginable crime of principle in developed nations," he said in remarks posted on his Twitter account Tuesday.
The case is one of many brought by conservative lawyers in recent months seeking to punish individuals they deem as having offended Islam. Earlier this year, two courts rejected blasphemy cases against Christian media mogul, Naguib Sawiris, after he relayed a cartoon online of Mickey Mouse with a beard and Minnie in a face veil.
The cases highlight the newfound sense of empowerment among followers of the ultraconservative Salafi trend of Islam in Egypt after Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising. Their newly formed Al-Nour party won 25 percent of seats in parliament, emerging as the second most powerful group in Egypt after the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood.
The mere filing of such blasphemy cases by Salafi lawyers has raised concern among rights groups and liberals about attempts to curb freedom of speech.
Egyptian entertainment reporter Tarek el-Shinnawi said the case against Imam is a setback for Cairo's famed film industry, which has produced the region's most popular films.
"It will make any writer, director or actor think before considering the role of a Muslim figure," el-Shinnawi said.
Imam was initially found guilty in February in a case brought by an ultraconservative Islamist lawyer. He was given a retrial since he was first tried in absentia. He did not appear in court Tuesday but his lawyers did. Imam has the right to appeal.
Under Mubarak, government censors controlled what could be shown in theaters or filmed by major studios. The films Imam starred in were approved by the censors.
El-Shinnawi argued that a legally sound case would involve the writers and directors, and the censors who approved the movies, not just the star of the films.
Imam, 71, has acted in dozens of films in a career that spans nearly 50 years.
Long a beloved figured in Egypt, Imam lost popularity among Egyptian protesters for supporting Mubarak during last year's 18-day revolt.
In one of his most popular roles, Imam played an Arab dictator in a 1998 satirical play called el-Zaeem. The play has since been aired on satellite television across the Arab world, bypassing state censors and gaining popularity through its comedic take of a tyrannical figure.