Bishoy Hegazy
Bishoy Hegazy All Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief

Some 10 years ago, journalist Bishoy Hegazy became the first person in the Middle East to persuade the state to recognise his conversion from Islam to Christianity on his official ID card. Today, he languishes inside Egypt's notorious Tora jail, convicted of blasphemy and with no idea when he would be released.

It is a cruel irony that Hegazy's first arrest came in December 2013, some six months after general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Mohammed Morsi in a coup to prevent his Muslim Brotherhood government from turning Egypt into a hard line Islamist state. But five years since the Egyptian revolution, the country has witnessed a sharp regression in religious freedom. Hegazy was in El Minya, a hotspot of sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians in Upper Egypt, visiting friends in 2013. A reporter for US-based Arabic Christian channel The Way, he had his equipment with him as always when authorities raided the building where he having lunch with a friend. They arrested him but assured him that it was for his own protection.

When a prison officer wants to harm him, he would tell the other inmates that he was Muslim and converted to Christianity.
– Hany el-Gamal, former Tora jail inmate

Hegazy was, like many journalists working in Egypt, later charged with broadcasting false news and tarnishing Egypt's reputation overseas. He was tortured overnight and taken to a prison in Fayoum, a large rural town in southern Egypt. In a six-page letter smuggled out of prison and seen by IBTimes UK, Hegazy said he was then transported between the Fayoum jail and El Minya jail, where he was originally detained, until he faced trial.

He was eventually given a five-year sentence, which was later reduced to a year. After a harrowing eight-month ordeal in prison, he was ordered for release in July 2014, but in the early hours of his release date he was taken to another prison on the outskirts of Cairo. To his surprise, he was brought before the prosecution who charged him with religious blasphemy for case dating to 2009. The court dismissed the five-years statute of limitations for this case and Hegazy was sent to Tora prison, where his temporary detention is renewed every 45 days until his case is brought before the courts again.

"I got to know him about five months into my 11-month sentence. We used to see each other practically every day for two to three months before my release. During the one-hour break we had every day, I would notice that he kept himself [to himself]," said Hany El Gamal, a cell inmate of Hegazy.

He recounted the shocking prison conditions where nearly 25 inmates would share a 25sq-metre cell and a filthy toilet, but for Hegazy his sentence was particularly brutal.

"He has two problems in jail – one with the interior ministry and one with society at large," said Gamal, who was sentenced alongside 24 others in the high-profile case protesting a restrictive assembly law in December 2013 in front of the Shura Council, Egypt's upper house of parliament.

"When a prison officer wants to harm him, he would tell the other inmates that he was Muslim and converted to Christianity. It even says on his court papers that he had converted from Islam to Christianity. It has nothing to do with the case – it's irrelevant. His life is really in danger inside of prison because of his Christianity," he said.

Hegazy is not the first Egyptian to fall foul of the country's strict laws against blasphemy since Sisi took power. In January, Fatima Naoot, a popular writer supportive of Sisi's regime and who ran in Egypt's latest parliamentary election, was sentenced to three years in jail for religious blasphemy. Meanwhile, Islam El Beheiry, an Islamic preacher who had a popular TV showing calling for a more reformist version of his religion, went to prison in December last year on a one-year sentence of blasphemy and defamation charges.

Egypt arab spring
An Egyptian protester waves the national flag during clashes with soldiers near Cairo's Tahrir Square Getty

Ishak Ibrahim, a religious-freedom researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, sees these cases including Hegazy's as part of the intensified climate of political repression where even state security services actively bring forward cases of religious blasphemy against citizens.

"Abuses against personal freedoms in general are on the rise, whether it's about sexuality, censorship of films – it's not just about a religion. It gives you an indicator that the state is saying we are not the Brotherhood any more, but we are still morally conservative" he said. "There's no justice in the courtrooms because these cases become emotionally biased appealing to religious sentiments. The state is using religious vocabulary, not nationalistic, to support its political machinery. It's embedded in its institutions", he added.

He could have tied himself to the church so they can defend him or the influential businessmen he knew, but he didn't because he didn't want to be the poster boy for religious freedoms
– Gamal

Hegazy's last hearing was on 11 January, and his lawyer Nayera El Sayed briefly saw him behind the heavily fortified glass cage where defendants are brought before the judge. His temporary detention was renewed for 45 days and she did not get a chance to speak her client. The last time she properly spoke to him was in November 2015, when Hegazy was anxious and mentally exhausted yet still optimistic.

"He asks about his case since he's been in temporary detention for more than a year now, that he's scared, that he's having a tough time dealing with other prisoners and that he's cut off from his family" she said, adding that Hegazy's wife and children left Egypt because of endemic religious persecution. "I am the only one who used to see him on a regular basis," she said.

Recently El Sayed, a human-rights lawyer with the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, has had her visitation rights cut, and noted that this was a worrying development where state security is targeting Hegazy in the recent crackdown that marked the fifth anniversary of the revolution. "It's abnormal compared with other prisoners that we can't see him any more" she said.

Hegazy can spend up to two years in temporary detention, according to Egyptian law, and still not have his case called – which has happened with a photojournalist and a student who wore a T-shirt that was deemed too controversial for Egyptian authorities. As Gamal, an engineer who was released by presidential pardon in September 2015, adjusts to being outside of prison he thinks of his cell-mate daily and wishes that he too would be out soon.

"He could have tied himself to the church so they can defend him or the influential businessmen he knew, but he didn't because he's a truthful person who didn't want to engage in these societal contradictions. He didn't want to be the poster boy for religious freedoms" he said. "He has no one".

Farid Farid is a freelance journalist based in Cairo