Seven years ago, Mohammed Hegazy attempted to change his legal religious identity from Muslim to Christian; he was the first Egyptian citizen to do so. Today, Hegazy is in jail, awaiting an expected December 28th verdict on a separate 2013 misdemeanor charge.
Hegazy faces a five-year prison sentence if a court of appeals upholds his conviction from last June, when he was pronounced guilty of “illegally filming anti-Christian demonstrations” in Upper Egypt’s Minya governate. His lawyer, Karam Ghobrial, told World Watch Monitor that he is “optimistic” that the appellate court judge will overturn the conviction, due to the complete lack of evidence produced to prove the allegations against his client.
Ghobrial contends that Hegazy’s arrest and subsequent imprisonment on minor charges is really because he is publicly known for his 2007 attempt to legalize his conversion to Christianity.
In a November 23rd 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, and that the Christian convert had not 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 December 4th, 2013, on charges of 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 of his arrested, testified during the trial that although she had 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 both his initial appeal hearing scheduled for November 16th, when without warning the judge failed to appear, and the rescheduled hearing on November 23rd.
After Ghobrial submitted his defense before the court, Judge el-Ghool stated that he would announce his verdict at a final hearing on December 28th. Both Hegazy and his lawyer must be present at that hearing. The judge’s reasons for his judgment will be issued in writing a few days later.
Several days after the November 23rd hearing, Ghobrial learned that Hegazy had not yet been transferred from Minya back to Tora Prison. Instead, on December 1st, he had been “arbitrarily detained” in a solitary “execution” cell usually 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 December 2nd. According to the lawyer, the solitary confinement was a “malicious” attempt to “take revenge” against his client for his religious beliefs.
After one night in the death penalty cell, Hegazy declared his intention to 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 appellate court judge in Minya will acquit him on December 28th, the convert still expects to be returned to Tora Prison to face separate charges of “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 to legally change his identity to Christian in August 2007. He has since sent his wife and children to claim asylum in Europe.
Father, we pray for Mohammed Hegazy and the legal judgments that have been filed against him. Protect him against injustice, surround him with Your overwhelming peace, and protect his wife and children as they seek asylum abroad. Protect him from despair. Provide opportunities for him to live and speak the message of Your gospel in prison. Keep him focused on Your Word and the presence of the Spirit within him, and fill him with hope in Christ. In the name of Jesus, our Advocate, Amen.