NEW YORK—Simultaneous developments in the cases of writers Ahmed Naji and Alaa Aswany this weekend are indicative of Egypt’s ongoing assault on human rights and free expression, PEN America said in a statement today.

On the same day, writer and founder of the Kefaya political movement Alaa Aswany was detained for several hours at the Cairo Airport on his way to New York and previously-imprisoned author Ahmed Naji saw his retrial on charges of “violating public modesty” referred to a criminal court.

In February 2016, Naji was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment on charges stemming from a private citizen’s allegations that Naji’s novel The Use of Life , had caused him to experience heart palpitations. In December 2016, Naji’s prison term was suspended, although he was then subjected to a travel ban and other restrictions on work. In May 2017, an appeals court overturned the original decision under which Naji was convicted, and ordered the case to be re-tried. On January 6, 2018, the North Cairo Appeals Court ruled it had no jurisdiction over his case and referred it to the Criminal Court for a new round of hearings.  

“The referral of Ahmed Naji’s retrial to a criminal court is absurd—writing a story is never a criminal act,” said PEN America’s Executive Director, Suzanne Nossel. “Naji’s ordeal at the hands of Egyptian authorities has, from the beginning, been nothing but an overt assault on free expression and has placed undue burdens and hardships on Naji and his family. The fact that this decision came on the same day that Alaa Aswany was detained at the Cairo airport only underlines the broader and deeply concerning pattern of attacks on creative expression in Egypt.” 

Article 65 of the Egyptian Constitution provides for freedom of expression for all individuals, and Article 67 establishes freedom of artistic and literary creation. Under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, however, writers, journalists, and peaceful political activists have been routinely harassed, arrested, and imprisoned.

In May 2016, PEN America honored Naji with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. Naji’s imprisonment unleashed a storm of outrage among his fellow writers and journalists in Egypt and around the world. PEN America continues to call for all charges against Ahmed Naji to be dropped, and for an end to the harassment, arrests, and persecution of writers and all those who would exercise their free expression in Egypt.

Karin Karlekar, Director of Free Expression At Risk Programs: [email protected]