Novelist Ahmed Naji, editor acquitted of ‘harming public morality’ charges

Novelist Ahmed Naji and editor of Akhbar al-Adab newspaper Tarek al-Taher were both acquitted on Saturday of charges of “harming public morality,” lawyer Mahmoud Othman told Mada Masr.

Both Naji and Taher have been accused of publishing sexually explicit content that harms public morality. The text in question is a chapter of Naji’s novel, Istakhdem al-Haya (Using Life), which was serialized in state-owned Akhbar al-Adab. Both could have faced sentences of up to two years in prison and a fine of between LE5,000 and LE10,000 according to Law 178, which penalizes artists, publishers or distributors for content that violates public morals.

While the detailed reasoning of the verdict is yet to be released, Othman explained that a number of arguments he presented to the court in earlier sessions are mostly likely the reason behind the acquittal. The plaintiffs, according to Othman, do not have the right to file the case in the first place. “They claimed that they represent society, which is not the case. Only prosecution has this right.”

The defense team also presented evidence from early Arabic and Islamic literature where the same terms that Naji used in his novel were used. Othman added that Islamic heritage used even more controversial terms than those chosen by Naji in his novel.

Finally, Othman added that the testimonies of renowned novelists in support of Naji helped strengthening his legal position.

On December 12, novelists Gaber Asfour, Sonallah Ibrahim and Mohamed Salamawi stood before the court on Saturday as defense witnesses. Salamawi defended Naji’s position, explaining that there many literary works are completely imaginative and creative. Some artistic sculptures depict nudity that is is not acceptable in real life, he added, but might be acceptable as art, eyewitnesses reported from the court.

The prosecution asked witness Sonallah Ibrahim to read the text out loud in court, but Ibrahim responded by saying that every piece has its own context and not all are supposed to be read aloud in public.

The prosecution asserted in a previous hearing that “the defendant went too far with his intellectual abnormality by describing sinful sexual relationships using terms that turn humans into animals that chase after their desires,” according to AFTE. The prosecution also encouraged the upcoming parliament to enforce stronger punishments for “violating public decency.”

The lawyers who raised the case demanded that defendants be given the maximum penalty, because “we live in a society that does accept publishing such language in a state-owned newspaper.”

Before today’s ruling, a campaign was launched by fellow artists in solidarity with Naji and Taher, with the hashtag #ضد_محاكمة_الخيال (“Against the trial of imagination”) trending on Twitter. Users slammed what they called a crackdown on freedom of expression and creativity, asserting that such literary works should not be taken to court.