Radical Islamists were hunted by security or imprisoned under the previous regime of former President Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak's ouster in Feb. 2011, the groups rose to prominence, rallying popular sympathy and operating openly for the first time. Many of their leaders were released from prison after newly elected President Mohammed Morsi came to power.
Rights activists have warned that the rise of court cases using contempt of religion as a charge threatened to restrain freedom of expression. The charges are vague and mean anything can be deemed offensive, said Ishak Ibrahim, a researcher with EIPR who monitors religious freedom cases in Egypt.
Ibrahim said the boys have denied the charges.
"This is a very serious development and is an attack on freedom of expression," Ibrahim said. The writing of Egypt's constitution is taking place in the backdrop of this furious debate over what constitutes freedom of expression and how much does Islamic law feature in the charter.
The cases also are reminiscent of blasphemy laws in Pakistan, where rights activists say Islamists increasingly use blasphemy accusations against Christians and other religious minorities. Earlier this year, a young Christian girl in Islamabad was detained after she was alleged to have desecrated the Quran, but since then a Muslim cleric has been accused of fabricating the evidence against her. She has been freed on bail.
On his Twitter account, Ibrahim criticized Egypt's Islamic groups for focusing on cases of contempt of religion, while the country is boiling with economic difficulties, calls for better wages and distribution of wealth and dwindling resources.
"The rise in cases of religious contempt shows that some want to divert people's attention from demanding their rights, and keep them busy with other issues," Ibrahim wrote. "The Islamic trend has nothing to offer in terms of realizing social justice and is seeking to create issues to keep people from criticizing them."
Amr Ezzat, a columnist in the Egypt Independent newspaper, warned that the cases are opening the gates "of sectarian hell."
Going after such speech cases "is frivolous and would turn the state, police and judiciary into disciplinary watchdogs with no other responsibilities but to ensure that everyone engaging in dialogue is doing so respectably," he wrote Wednesday.
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