Jailed and lashed for atheism – At UN, IHEU highlights Saudi and Egypt’s treatment of those with no religion

  • post Type / Advocacy News
  • Date / 15 March 2016

Today at the United Nations Human Rights Council, director of advocacy for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), Elizabeth O’Casey, highlighted some particular cases of concern regarding state-led persecution of individuals who have professed their atheism.

Drawing on the IHEU’s written statement on the issue, O’Casey marked out the state-sponsored persecution of atheists in Saudi Arabia – which is a member of the Human Rights Council, and Chair of the Council’s Consultative Group – and Egypt as particularly grave. In the former, where atheism is equated with terrorism, she raised the case of Ashraf Fayadh who was accused of “spreading atheism”, insulting “the divine self” and initially sentenced to beheading by sword, and a recent case of an atheist sentenced to 10 years in prison and 2,000 lashes. In Egypt she discussed two atheists in hiding after being sentenced to time in jail for their beliefs.

O’Casey highlighted how discrimination and persecution against the non-religious or those criticising religious views is very often bound up with political suppression and fears about progressive values, and for this reason the suppression of the freedom of conscience and expression of those professing no religion is not just harmful for those individuals and atheists more broadly, but a mechanism used to silence those seeking to criticise the human rights failing by the states themselves.

Her statement follows below in full:


International Humanist and Ethical Union

UN Human Rights Council, 31st Session (29th February – 24th March 2016)
General Debate on Item 4
Elizabeth O’Casey

Some months ago in Saudi Arabia, where atheists are defined as terrorists by law, Palestinian poet and artist Ashraf Fayadh was accused of “spreading atheism”, insulting “the divine self”, and objecting to concepts of fate as acts of God. For this he was sentenced to death for “apostasy” (to be carried out via beheading by sword). Last month, Fayadh’s death sentence was overturned, and he was re-sentenced to eight years in prison and 800 lashes. .

In February 2015, Egyptian student Sherif Gaber declared his atheism on Facebook and was sentenced to a year’s hard labour for “contempt of religion.” He was also charged with promoting “debauchery” after he challenged a lecturer who said that homosexuals should be “killed in the streets”. [Gaber went into hiding following the sentence this year.] A month previously, atheist activist Karim al-Banna was sentenced to three years in jail for “insulting the divine” after declaring his atheism online. The prosecution had tried to demand that Al-Banna be sent to prison without trial, and his name was included in a list of “known atheists” in a local daily newspaper. [He is now in hiding].

These cases are notable in their representing country laws in diametric opposition to the internationally recognised twin rights to freedom of conscience and expression, specifically in relation to declared atheism.

Discrimination and persecution against the non-religious or those criticising religious views is very often bound up with political suppression and fears about progressive values. Humanists and secularists are often amongst the first to ask questions, and to raise the alarm when human rights are being trampled upon, or when religion is misused or abused. Silence the non-religious, and you silence some of the leading voices of responsible concern in society.

We call on Egypt and Saudi Arabia to drop the convictions and charges in the aforementioned cases, and change their laws with urgency so as to fall in line with their international obligations.

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