Karam Saber
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Activist and writer Karam Saber has been sentenced to five years in jail in Egypt for writing a book considered by the authorities as promoting atheism in the country.

When the author published "Where Is God?" -- a collection of short stories about poor farmers in Egypt -- in 2011, some citizens from Beni Sueif filed a legal complaint alleging the work promoted atheism and contradicted religious precepts.

Saber rejected the accusations, but the court in Beni Sueif sentenced him to jail and fined him EGP1,000 (£83) – the maximum sentence – for contempt of religion.

Hamdy Al-Assiuti, one of the members of Saber's defence team, said the court disregarded the evidence submitted by Saber's lawyers.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Egyptian government to revoke the sentence and repeal laws violating freedom of expression.

"Rather than prosecuting Karam Saber for giving voice to poor farmers, authorities should bring Egypt's laws into harmony with its new constitution and international obligations" said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. "Freedom of expression is at the heart of a tolerant, democratic society."

According to article 98 of the Egyptian Penal Code, "exploiting religion in spreading, either by words, in writing, or in any other means, extreme ideas for the purposes of inciting strife, ridiculing or insulting [the Abrahamic faiths] or a sect following it, or damaging national unity", is punishable with prison sentences of between six months to five years and fines of EGP500-1,000.

However, article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Egypt is a state party, upholds the right to freedom of expression.

According to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which interprets the ICCPR, "prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant".

Stork concluded: "Although Egyptian authorities claim blasphemy laws maintain social peace, they often have the opposite effect.

"Prosecuting people for beliefs peacefully expressed validates, rather than combats, intolerance."