This statement was originally published on pen-international.org on 22 December 2016.
The long overdue decision by the Cairo Court of Cassation on 18 December 2016 to order the release of novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji is a welcome step, PEN International and English PEN said today, while deploring the fact it took four days to release him. Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for 'violating public modesty' for a chapter in one of his novels. The court suspended his sentence pending his appeal scheduled for 1 January 2017. He was released on 22 December.
'What's obscene is not what Ahmed Naji wrote, but the fact that he was tried in the first place. While it is fantastic news that he has been released, we must also remember that his appeal will be examined in January, at which point the authorities will decide whether to try him afresh or whether to send him back to jail. He must remain free,' said Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee.
'This sorry chapter must end so that Ahmed Naji can resume writing new chapters and new books. That is the lifeblood of PEN's work and we defend to the hilt his right to contribute to literature, our common heritage.'
Naji has served 10 months of a sentence imposed in February 2016 for 'violating public modesty' in relation to the publication in 2014 of excerpts from his 2014 novel Istikhdam al-Hayat (The Use of Life) in Akhbar al-Adab magazine. Editor of Akhbar al-Adab magazine Tarek El Taher, was also convicted and was sentenced to a fine. The court's reasoning reportedly stated that creative expression is limited by religion, tradition, and moral values.
What’s obscene is not what Ahmed Naji wrote, but the fact that he was tried in the first place. Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee
Three earlier motions for a stay of implementation of Naji's sentence filed by his lawyers were rejected. PEN International believes his imprisonment was in violation of the right to freedom of expression, as provided for under articles 65 and 67 of Egypt's constitution and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party.
Article 65 of Egypt's Constitution guarantees freedom of thought and opinion, and article 67 guarantees freedom of artistic and literary creation. However, article 178 of the Penal Code provides for up to two years' imprisonment and a fine for making, holding, distributing, leasing, pasting, or displaying 'printed matter, manuscripts, drawings, advertisements, carved or engraved pictures, manual or automatic photographic drawings, symbolic signs or other objects or pictures in general, if they are against public morals'. Egypt's parliament rejected a proposal in November by two MPs to abolish jail terms for 'violating public modesty'. They had argued that article 178 of the penal code is unconstitutional as it restricts freedom of expression.
Naji's case has been taken up by many writers and activists, both in Egypt and internationally. Over 500 Egyptian writers and artists signed a statement in solidarity with Naji, and in May 2016, an international day of readings was held for Ahmed Naji, with several PEN Centres participating. PEN America awarded him the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in May 2016, and over 120 international writers, editors and artists joined a PEN America statement calling for his immediate release. English PEN has published a translation by Mona Kareem of one of Naji's short stories.
In September 2016, he was an Empty Chair at PEN International's 82nd Congress in Ourense, Spain where Iman Humaydan, the President of PEN Lebanon read from his work, and on 15 November PEN Centres around the world celebrated his work and campaigned for his release on the occasion of the 2016 Day of the Imprisoned Writer, with acclaimed Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh writing a moving open letter to Naji.
'We welcome Ahmed Naji's release, but are dismayed that he faces a hearing in January. Naji has been the victim of a wide crackdown on freedom of expression in Egypt that has affected writers, publishers, journalists, artists, activists and NGOs. His sentence and imprisonment have been a cause of grave concern, and a chilling effect for all artists, journalists and writers in Egypt, reducing the space for creative freedom in the country. We call on the authorities to guarantee their commitment to upholding the right to freedom of expression and drop all charges against him,' said Jo Glanville, Director of English PEN.
Egypt's crackdown on freedom of expression in recent years has not only targeted journalists and other media outlets, but has been accompanied by restrictions on cultural houses, including several raids on a publishing house and an art gallery in 2015 as well as charges against other writers. In November 2016, a restrictive NGO law was passed and many political and human rights activists are banned from travel.
Despite claims by President Sisi that the Egyptian media and press are free to talk as they please, PEN has been monitoring many cases of writers and journalists who have been jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association, and assembly including during journalistic or human rights work, and continues to call for their release.