By Mahmoud Mourad
CAIRO (Reuters) - A prominent Egyptian poet could face up to three years in jail over a Facebook post in which she criticized the slaughter of animals at a Muslim festival, a case which rights activists say shows how the government is muzzling free speech.
Fatima Naoot described the Prophet Abraham's dream - in which, according to Islamic belief, God tells him to sacrifice his son as a test of his faith - as a "nightmare". Before Abraham can carry out the deed, God provided a sheep instead as a sacrifice.
In her post, the poet criticized the sacrifice of animals at Eid al-Adha, also called the Feast of the Sacrifice, a festival that honors Abraham's willingness to obey God.
"Millions of innocent creatures will be driven to the most horrible massacre committed by humans for ten-and-a-half centuries," she said. "A massacre which is repeated every year because of the nightmare of a righteous man about his good son."
The poet - whose trial began on Wednesday - has been charged with contempt of Islam, spreading sectarian strife and disturbing public peace, judicial sources and Naoot said.
She denies the charges. If convicted she could face jail terms ranging from six months to three years, the sources said.
"I will not be defeated even if I'm imprisoned," Naoot, who did not appear in court, told Reuters on Wednesday. "The loser will be the cultural movement."
Rights groups say a crackdown launched by the government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, following the toppling of Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013, has muzzled freedom of expression.
They also say those seen as offending Islam have been targeted by the state and jailed on charges ranging from blasphemy to contempt of religion - but say this has been happening since the 2011 overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, not just since Mursi was deposed following mass protests.
The country's courts convicted 27 of 42 defendants accused of contempt for religion in 2011-2013, according to the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
The government denies any accusations of hindering freedom of speech or belief. It says it is committed to democracy and does not interfere in judicial matters.
Egypt's constitution states that "freedom of belief is absolute".
Gamal Eid, the director of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, said Naoot's case should not have made it to court. "This shows that the state is turning a blind eye to the advocates of religious extremism," he added.
Three Al Jazeera journalists - Canadian-Egyptian Mohamed Fahmy, Egyptian Baher Mohamed and Australian Peter Greste - were jailed last June for spreading lies to help a "terrorist organization", a reference to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
That case has drawn criticism from local and international human rights groups and western governments which accused Egypt of restricting the freedom of speech and prompted the United Nations to question its judicial independence.
Egypt's High Court ordered a retrial of the men earlier this month.
Naoot is a supporter of Sisi, according to her Facebook posts and television interviews. She attended a meeting he held last month with writers, according to local media reports.
She denied her comments were intended to insult religion.
"I am respectful of all religions," she wrote in an article published on Tuesday on an Egyptian news website.
A lawyer filed a lawsuit against the poet in December following her Facebook post and prosecutors agreed to take up the case.
The hearing on Wednesday dealt with procedural matters and the judge set a date of Feb. 25 for a second hearing.
(Editing by Maggie Fick and Pravin Char)