Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam attended a press conference Thursday held in solidarity with novelist Ahmed Naji, who was sentenced to two years in prison this week on charges of harming public morality.
The Boulaq Appeals Court convicted Naji on immorality charges in relation to excerpts from his novel Istikhdam al-Haya (The Use of Life) that ran in the state-owned Akhbar al-Adab literary magazine in August 2014. A misdemeanors court had initially acquitted Naji in January, but the prosecution appealed the verdict.
Namnam said that laws conflicting with constitutional guarantees for the freedom of expression need to be confronted, explaining that the case sets a precedent extending far beyond Naji’s novel. Even if a literary work is challenging to social norms, he added, this is not a criminal offense justifying imprisonment.
It wasn’t Naji that harmed public morality, Namnam argued, but whoever filed the lawsuit against him.
The case was initially filed by a 65-year-old man named Hani Saleh Tawfik, who claimed the excerpt published in Akhbar al-Adab threatened his sense of morality. The prosecution accused Naji of publishing sexual content constituting “a malicious violation of the sanctity of morals and good manners.”
Thursday’s conference was held at the Journalists Syndicate and brought together nine rights organizations as well as several public figures.
Khaled al-Balshy, a Journalists Syndicate board member, jokingly said the conference should be called “Don’t listen to anyone but me,” referring to a speech given by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Wednesday.
The conference was organized to send a message to “whoever told us not to listen to anyone else,” Balshy then declared.
He condemned the “injustice” that sent Naji to prison, as well as the increasing violations committed against journalists and media workers.