Facebook atheist Karim al-Banna risking jail seeks to flee Egypt

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AFP) - Karim al-Banna, who on Monday could hear an appeal court uphold his three-year jail term for "insulting" Islam with his atheism, wishes he could live anywhere but his native Egypt.

"All I want now is to leave Egypt. Life is not possible for atheists here," the 23-year-old engineering student told AFP from his home in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

If he loses the appeal over his self-declared atheism on Facebook, Banna's last resort would be Egypt's cassation court.

Arrested in November, he was released on bail after having spent 55 days behind bars. "It was like living in a tomb," he said.

Banna, a former Muslim Brotherhood member, said he returned to being an avid reader of the Koran and prayed constantly to avoid being victimised by other inmates.

But he had "rejected religion" after having been disillusioned by the Brotherhood, which Egyptian authorities have worked to crush since the July 2013 ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

Banna recalled how his father, to avoid a local scandal in the religiously conservative Arab country, had testified against him in court.

"He said I had opinions hostile to religion," said the young man, who was convicted along with a friend.

Banna had gone to the police after a dispute with his neighbours over his professed atheism, but was arrested instead.

Egyptian courts have jailed several people for having insulted religion, although the constitution in theory defends freedom of expression.

The same constitution, however, outlaws insults against Egypt's three recognised monotheist religions - Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

"Atheists are one of Egypt's least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression," Human Rights Watch said in January.

"Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism," the New York-based watchdog said.

Between 2011 and 2013, 42 defendants faced with the same charge have been ruled guilty, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

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