The first Egyptian citizen to attempt to change his legal religious identity from Muslim to Christian, Mohammed Hegazy, has been in jail for a year now, awaiting a verdict on separate misdemeanor charges, due on Dec. 28.
Hegazy faces a five-year prison sentence if an appeal court upholds his conviction last June, when he was ruled guilty of “illegally filming anti-Christian demonstrations” in Upper Egypt’s Minya governate.
But his lawyer, Karam Ghobrial, told World Watch Monitor that he is “optimistic” that the appeal court judge will overturn the conviction, simply because no evidence was produced to prove the allegations against his client.
Ghobrial contends that the real reason Hegazy was arrested and then kept in custody on minor charges is because he is publicly known for the case he tried to open in 2007 to legalize his conversion to Christianity.
In a Nov. 23 appeal hearing before Judge Ahmed Abdel Aziz el-Ghool of the Minya Misdemeanor Court, Ghobrial declared that there was no proof that his client had broken any law, nor had the Christian convert even been arrested legally.
“My defense was based on the absence of a ‘flagrante delicto’ [a legal term for being caught in the very act of committing a crime],” Ghobrial said.
Hegazy was arrested on Dec. 4, 2013, charged with filming Muslim Brotherhood demonstrations in the Minya governate of Upper Egypt without permission. Identified by the arresting officer as “a converted person” [from Islam to Christianity], Hegazy was also accused of “spreading false news and rumors.”
“He was not filming or taking pictures or doing anything wrong at the time the policeman arrived and arrested him,” Ghobrial said. “By law, taking pictures is not a crime in itself,” the attorney said. He stressed that Samia Naguib, who was with Hegazy at the time he was arrested, testified during the trial that although she had also been taking pictures alongside Hegazy before the policeman arrived, the officer who arrested Hegazy did not arrest her.
Although the prosecution claimed Hegazy was circulating false statements that disturbed public security, Ghobrial stressed that no evidence had been produced to back up this accusation.
In addition, he said, the police officer’s failure to obtain the required arrest warrant from either a court or the district attorney made Hegazy’s arrest illegal. “He simply went to the Syndicate of Agriculture site after he received a phone call reporting that Hegazy was there,” Ghobrial said, and arrested him without any legal authorization.
To the lawyer’s relief, Tora Prison officials in Cairo cooperated with his client’s transfer to Minya to attend his initial appeal hearing on Nov. 16, when without warning the judge failed to appear, and again when the hearing was postponed on Nov. 23.
After Ghobrial submitted his defense before the court, Judge el-Ghool stated that he would announce his verdict at a final hearing on Dec. 28. Both Hegazy and his lawyer must be present at that hearing, with the judge’s reasons for his judgment to be issued in writing a few days later.
Detained ‘arbitrarily’ in death cell
Several days after the Nov. 23 hearing, Ghobrial learned that Hegazy had not yet been transferred from Minya back to Tora Prison. Instead, on Dec. 1 he had been “arbitrarily detained” in a solitary “execution” cell reserved for death penalty prisoners.
“[He was] detained inside the execution chamber in violation of the law, because he is in custody under investigation,” Ghobrial told Mideast Christian News on Dec. 2. According to the lawyer, it was a ‘malicious’ attempt to ‘take revenge’ against his client for his religious beliefs.
After one night in the death penalty cell, Hegazy declared he would start a hunger strike if he was not removed. He was transferred back to Tora Prison the next day.
Although the lawyer said he and his client remain optimistic that the appeal court judge in Minya will acquit him on Dec. 28, the convert still expects to be returned to Tora Prison to face separate charges for “insulting Islam” from a now obsolete case filed against him in 2009. Initially filed by two Muslim lawyers, the case was revived in July by the Supreme State Security Prosecution in Cairo’s El-Tagamu El-Khames district as a pretext to remand Hegazy in custody, after the Minya court released him until his conviction appeal was completed.
Now 31-years-old, Hegazy converted to Christianity as a teenager, when he took the Christian name Bishoy Armiya Boulos. After his marriage to another convert from Islam, he applied for legal Christian identity in August 2007. He has since sent his wife and children to claim asylum in Europe.