An appeals court in Egypt on Sunday ordered that novelist Ahmed Naji be be released pending appeal of his two-year sentence for "violating public modesty" after excerpts from his book that were printed in a state-funded magazine gave a complainant “heart palpitations, sickness, and a drop in blood pressure.”
Naji was initially acquitted, but he was sent to prison when the case was appealed to a higher court. In the excerpt from his 2014 book, “The Use of Life,” the narrator smokes hashish, drinks alcohol and has a sexual relationship with a woman.
The scene had been approved by Egypt’s censorship authority, but prosecutors called it “vulgar.” Naji was prosecuted under a statute in the Egyptian penal code that criminalizes any printed matter or art deemed to be "against public morals."
Naji's conviction in February quickly became a cause célèbre among free-speech advocates across the world.
The literary group PEN America condemned Naji's arrest, suggesting it was related to the author's vocal criticism of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi. It awarded Naji its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in May.
PEN sponsored an open letter to Sisi and the Egyptian parliament, which read in part: "Writing is not a crime. ... Mr. Naji’s sentencing is emblematic of the Egyptian government’s deeply troubling crackdown on free expression."
The letter was signed by more than 100 writers, including Margaret Atwood, Sandra Cisneros, John Green, Philip Roth and Patti Smith.
The novelist's sentence has been temporarily suspended by the Court of Cassation, the highest appeals court in Egypt. He will face a hearing on Jan. 1, at which time the court will either decide to order a third trial or to order him back to prison.
Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America, praised the court's decision to temporarily free Naji in a news release.
"The Egyptian court finally awoke to the travesty of justice entailed in jailing a novelist for a work of fiction," Nossel said. "The mobilization of leading writers in Egypt and all over the world who demanded Naji's freedom is a clarion call to repressive regimes that train their sights on those who dare to speak out and to create."