On May 21, writer Ahmed Naji won an appeal against a two-year prison sentence — 300 days of which he had already served — for “violating public modesty” with a chapter of his novel Istikhdam al-Haya (The Use of Life, 2014). But he now has the weight of a retrial — at an unspecified date and under an unspecified judge — hanging over him.
The Court of Cassation accepted the appeal on the basis that the verdict was unconstitutional, referring to Article 67 of Egypt’s 2014 Constitution, which explicitly guarantees freedom of artistic and literary creativity and forbids imposing freedom-restricting sanctions on artists. A decision was made, and the retrial was announced in a closed session.
“It is likely that the decisive factor in accepting the appeal was a lack of criminal intention,” appeals lawyer Negad al-Borai said, adding that Naji’s defense team has not yet been given access to the particulars of the verdict. “When the writer wrote this chapter, did he intend to violate public morality? I think the court found that the answer was no,” he speculated.
The court is not bound by a legal time frame in which to set a retrial date, Borai explained. A lawyer from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, Mahmoud Othman, who is also a member of the defense team, said a date for the retrial under a different judge will be set by the appeals court after the team is granted access to the particulars of the court ruling, possibly next week.
The case was initiated after a chapter of The use of Life was published in state-affiliated weekly literary newspaper Akhbar Al-Adab. The 31-year-old novelist, journalist and blogger was initially found innocent in December 2015, but was later sentenced by the Boulaq misdemeanor court to the maximum term of two years in prison, after the prosecution appealed the verdict. Akhbar Al-Adab’s Chief Editor Tarek al-Taher was sentenced to a LE10,000 fine.
Naji’s trial caused widespread outrage in artistic and literary circles, with figures ranging from Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam to veteran author Sonallah Ibrahim offering their support. It also sparked debate on the protections available for artists under Egypt’s current laws. Naji was awarded the PEN/Barbey freedom to write award in May 2016.
He was released from Tora Prison in December, following the suspension of his prison term by the South Cairo Criminal Court, although he was banned from leaving the country. Legal procedures to get this travel ban lifted can be put in motion once the particulars of the court ruling have been released to Naji’s lawyers.
Naji, whose health is said to have been affected by his time in jail, told Mada Masr that he had finally been proven innocent. “Currently I’m not facing any charges,” he said, “but we expect that within three to six months the prosecution will refer the case to a new court for retrial.”
Naji said the team’s defense strategy for the retrial is yet to be decided. “We’ve won the case at the Court of Cassation,” he explained, “so as far as we’re concerned our role is over. Now the prosecution has to decide which court it will refer the retrial to. Based on this decision, we will begin to set a defense strategy.”
Despite the robust media support campaign surrounding Naji’s first and second trials, Borai said that in these cases, public opinion campaigns can have little effect on the judge’s rulings. “Public morality is a vague notion that can differ from one person to the next,” he explained. “The judge is afforded a large degree of flexibility in his interpretation, so we can only wait to see who the assigned judge will be.”
Naji said he and his wife plan to leave Egypt in the near future. “If the travel ban is lifted we plan on traveling, at least for the coming year or two. I have no other professional plans, simply because I have no option to work in this country anymore.”