Egypt justice minister sacked for saying he would arrest Prophet Mohammed
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Egypt’s Prime Minister Sharif Ismail sacked the country’s justice minister Sunday after he said he would arrest the Prophet Mohammed himself if he broke the law, in a country where blasphemy can be punished by up to five years in prison.
Ahmed al-Zend, Egypt’s justice minister since May last year, made the controversial remark during a televised interview Friday with the Sada al-Balad channel Friday.
Zend said he would imprison any “wrongdoer” if they were found guilty of a crime, “even” the Prophet Mohammed.
Seeming to realise his error, Zend stopped immediately and said: “I ask for forgiveness from God.”
He then issued an apology in another interview on Saturday, saying his comments were a “slip of the tongue” and “meant in a hypothetical sense”, but it was not enough to save his job.
“Prime Minister Sharif Ismail decided to dismiss justice minister Ahmed al-Zind from his post,” a statement from the premier’s office said Sunday, though it did not give a specific reason for the sacking.
It followed calls on social media for Zend to be removed from his post and put on trial for his comments in a country where attitudes towards religion are still deeply conservative and blasphemy still a crime met with stern punishment, despite the government’s fierce opposition to political Islam and claims of striving for religious tolerance.
Supporters of the Islamist movement have been handed long jail terms and others sentenced to death in mass trials for their alleged role in the violence that gripped the country in the wake of Morsi’s overthrow.
Sisi has portrayed the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood as an assault on Islamic extremism and part of the fight for greater religious freedom.
“The real Islamic religion grants absolute freedom for the whole people to believe or not believe,” Sisi said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal in March last year when asked about his opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood.
‘Retrograde views on blasphemy’
But while the Muslim Brotherhood has been fair game – Zend himself angered human rights campaigners in January when he called for the “mass killing” of the group’s supporters – the state has rigorously enforced the country’s strict blasphemy laws.
Under the country’s constitution, insulting the three monotheist religions recognised by the state Islam, Christianity and Judaism – is punishable by up to five years in prison.
However, the vast majority of prosecutions involve comments made about Islam, and rights groups say that the number of such cases is on the rise.
One of the most recent came in February, when three teenagers from Egypt’s minority Coptic Christian community were sentenced to five years in prison for insulting Islam after being seen in a video allegedly mocking Muslim prayers.
Their lawyer, however, said the video was in fact mocking the beheadings carried out by jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) group, with the teenagers reenacting an execution while laughing.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Egypt to annul the sentences.
“Mocking [IS group], or any religious group, with a childish joke is not a crime,” Nadim Houry, HRW’s deputy director for the Middle East said in a statement.
“Instead of giving in to retrograde views on blasphemy, Egyptian authorities should protect freedom of expression.”
Other recent cases have included the sentencing to three years in prison for a poet, Fatima Naoot, who criticised the traditional slaughter of animals for the Muslim feast of Eid al-Adha in a Facebook post, and TV presenter Islam Behery, who was jailed for one year for questioning conservative Muslim doctrine in a broadcast.
“Many thanks to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and his religious revolution...I am thankful for freedom of expression in Egypt,” Behery said sarcastically on his Facebook page after he was sentenced.
Judges back Zend
The well-connected Zend is unlikely to face prosecution for his comments with the head of Egypt’s Judges Club – a position Zend himself once held – defending the former minister.
“Egypt’s judges are sorry that someone who defended Egypt and its people, judiciary and nation in the face of the terrorist organisation that wanted to bring it down should be punished in this way,” said Abdallah Fathi, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood.
But Zend did earn a rebuke from the Cairo-based Sunni Islam learning centre Al-Azhar.
“All those involved in public discourse and in the media must respect the name of the Prophet. He should not be subjected to any insult even if it’s unintentional,” it said in a statement.
Zend, known for his hardline anti-Muslim Brotherhood views and strong support for the power of the judiciary, took over the position of justice minister from Mahfouz Saber after he was sacked for saying that the son of a rubbish collector should be ineligible to become a judge.