Press release

August 5, 1996

Court of Cassation supports divorce ruling

CHRLA expresses its deep concern with regard to today's Court of Cassation ruling which upholds the Appeals Court decision separating Dr. Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd from his wife, Dr. Ibtihal Yunis. The ruling states that Abu Zayd's writings and academic work are against Islam, therefore making the Muslim professor an apostate. And as such, according to Islamic and Egyptian family law, he cannot remain married to his Muslim wife.

The case against Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd was initiated in 1993 by a member of the Cairo University committee considering his promotion. The committee member objected to Abu Zayd's work on the basis that his research consisted of "clear affronts to Islam."

The controversy spread beyond the walls of the university, and as a result, a lawyer filed a suit against Abu Zayd, calling for the separation of the university lecturer from his wife. However, on 27 January 1994, the case was rejected by the court on the basis that the plaintiff had no direct interest in the case.

The lawyer then appealed the decision with the Cairo Court of Appeals. This time, the lawyer was successful, and on 14 June 1995, the court ruled against Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd, basing its decision on the principle of hisba—that a Muslim has the right to challenge whatever he considers to be an affront to God.

Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd then challenged the ruling, unsuccessfully, at the Court of Cassation.

CHRLA fears that this ruling will open the door to other accusations of apostasy against writers, researchers, intellectuals, and artists. The court may become a tool in the hands of certain groups to restrict freedom of belief and expression. Furthermore, rulings such as the one against Nasr Hamed Abu Zayd may be perceived by more militant Islamists as a green light to practice intellectual terrorism. All of this will undoubtedly lead many writers and intellectuals to self-censor their work or face the fate of Abu Zayd, or even worse, Farag Foda, who was assassinated in 1993.

The Court of Appeals ruling was based on the judge's own interpretation of Abu Zayd's writings, rather than the principles of Egyptian law. It is, therefore astonishing that the Court of Cassation has upheld the ruling. The same court stated that a court may not question the belief and faith of an individual, since "Religious belief can only be judged based on what a person says, and cannot be questioned or examined by judge."

The Court of Cassation decision violates the Egyptian Constitution, which guarantees freedom of belief, opinion, and expression as a right for all Egyptian citizens.

Furthermore, the decision constitutes a violation of international human rights conventions to which Egypt is a signatory. Indeed, the Court of Cassation clearly stated that, "the principles of International Law are considered an integral part of national legislation … and an Egyptian judge is bound to these principles wherever national legislation does not address the issue in question." Since apostasy is not addressed in national legislation, the principles of international law should have been applied.

The ruling does not only concern freedom of belief and expression, but also the right to found a family, and the rights of women. The ruling sets a precedent in that it legally breaks up a family, in violation of Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It also violates Article 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which grants women the same rights as men with regard to marriage and divorce.

The Center for Human Rights Legal Aid, while expressing its deep concern, believes that the Egyptian government should face up to its responsibility to protect the physical safety of Dr Abu Zayd and Dr Ibtihal Yunis. The government has a duty by law to protect academic freedom and the freedom of thought and belief against the pressures exerted by certain Islamist groups.

CHRLA reiterates the need for the government to introduce new legislation that clearly abolishes the principle of hisba cases in order to prevent Egyptian courts from becoming an arena for intellectual disputes.

As CHRLA's legal critique of the new hisba law made clear, the codification of hisba into the Egyptian statutes has only served to make such a ruling, as the one against Abu Zayd, possible.

CHRLA calls on all those who are concerned with the rights of individuals to freedom of expression, opinion, thought, belief, and academic research to work together to end this intellectual terrorism threatening the development of Egypt.

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