(Morning Star News) A judge in Upper Egypt found a Christian teacher guilty of defaming Islam today and levied a massive fine against her after prohibiting her lawyers from presenting a single witness during the trial.
Dimyana Obeid Abd Al-Nour escaped jail time, but she was fined 100,000 Egyptian pounds (US$14,270), far beyond her ability to pay.
She is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, her father, Ebed Abd Al-Nour, told Morning Star News. He said his daughter did nothing wrong.
“I am very upset right now by the sentence,” he said. “My daughter is innocent and should not have been given such a sentence.”
He then became overcome with emotion and declined to comment further.
Al-Nour a 24-year-old, first-year teacher in Egypt, made less than US$300 a month before she lost her position in the wake of the accusations against her. Her family is poor, and she could be sent to jail for failure to pay a court-ordered fine if unable to find the money.
Muslims created a clamor in the courtroom that put intense pressure on the judge, said a human rights advocate who was surprised that the guilty verdict did not send her to prison.
“I personally was expecting a prison sentence, but thank God she was only given a fine,” said Mohammed Noubi, a human rights advocate with the Luxor office of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “There was a lot of pressure and uproar inside the courtroom.”
On April 10, three elementary schoolchildren at Sheikh Sultan Primary School in the village of Al-Edisat, Luxor Province, along with their parents and some teachers, complained to the school administration that Al-Nour had made blasphemous comments while teaching. Two days earlier, while teaching a class about history and religion, she discussed pharaoh Amenhotep IV, later known as Akhenaten, who did away with all other Egyptian gods in favor of sun worship in ancient Egypt.
Al-Nour also reportedly expressed her admiration for the former head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the late Pope Shenouda III, in class. In some versions of the alleged incident, she also made comparisons between Shenouda and Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Three students said she made a gesture expressing disgust with Muhammad.
When the complaint was made, a group of head teachers and parents, known as the School Council, conducted an investigation into the allegations. They found there wasn’t any reliable evidence that Al-Nour had committed any offense, according to EIPR sources.
When the students were questioned, three of them said she had said or done something wrong. But the three students’ versions of what gesture Al-Nour allegedly made and what she allegedly said did not match up, according to EIPR. Also, the rest of the students in the class, 10 in all, said Al-Nour was blameless and never even mentioned the late pope or Muhammad.
A survey of the staff at the school revealed that she was widely respected by her colleagues, according to EIPR.
The School Council’s report was turned into the provincial governor’s office and to the legal department of the local office of the national Ministry of Education, which then conducted its own investigation; like the School Council, it found no crime had been committed. By chance, a school inspector happened to be monitoring the class Al-Nour was teaching but found nothing wrong with her instruction.
The case likely would have been dropped, but two attorneys representing the parents of one student went directly to the prosecutor’s office, obligating officials to conduct their own investigation. In what are known as “hisba cases,” Egyptian law allows citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who has transgressed the “exalted right of God.” Many blasphemy cases are filed in such a manner.
In court, Al-Nour’s lawyers were prepared to bring three crucial witnesses, including Mustafa Mikki, principal of the school. In an interview with the Coptic weekly Al-Watani, Mikki, a Muslim, said that those who brought the charges against Al-Nour were “fanatics.”
He also confirmed that none of the stories of the three children who accused Al-Nour matched. But the judge in Al-Nour’s case, Muhammad Al-Tamawy, would not let Mikki or anyone else testify on her behalf.
Noubi, who has helped Al-Nour’s legal team for EIPR, said that in addition to the fine, Al-Nour has now been referred to a civil court, as one of the complaining parents has filed a lawsuit against her. In order for damages to be awarded in the civil case, Al-Nour first must have been convicted of a crime. It is unknown how much money is sought in the civil case.
Al-Nour, who has attended only one of her hearings, remains in hiding. According to EIPR, the courtroom and surrounding area was swarming with conservative Muslims protesting against her during the hearing she attended.
Since then, she has been too sick to attend any of the hearings, according to human rights activists and her family. Al-Nour was arrested and held for two days, until her family was able to post bail with the help from the church.
Noubi said her lawyers plan to appeal.
The accusations against Al-Nour reflect a growing trend in Egypt of disproportionate use of the nation’s blasphemy statutes against members of Egypt’s Christian minority since the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi came into power in June 2012, according to human rights advocates.