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Compass – An Egyptian sheikh linked with a group devoted to the spread of Islam has been jailed without charges for nearly eight months on suspicion of committing blasphemy against Islam. Arrested at his trading office on April 6, Bahaa el-Din Ahmed Hussein Mohammed el-Akkad was first detained at the Doqqi State Security Prison in Cairo . When El-Akkad’s wife inquired there about him, officials denied he was imprisoned there and refused any access to him.

Six weeks later he was transferred to Cairo ’s Tora Mazraa Prison, where he has been incarcerated ever since. El-Akkad, 56, became a sheikh (Muslim religious leader), during many years as a member of Tabligh and Da’wah, a fundamentalist Islamic group. Although the group is active in teaching and spreading Islam to non-Muslims, it is strictly opposed to violence.

After Egyptian lawyer Athanasius William took on El-Akkad’s case last May, he was permitted to attend his client’s interrogation sessions with the State Security Investigation (SSI) and the prosecutor’s office. The line of questioning followed by El-Akkad’s interrogators indicated that blasphemy, or defaming Islam, was the main accusation against him, William said.

The sheikh’s family, now allowed to visit him weekly at Tora Mazraa Prison, confirmed to Compass that he is jailed there in Cell 2 with other political prisoners, the majority of them from extreme Islamist groups. Since most face charges of violence against the state, “His case is very different from theirs,” one relative said.

To the family’s alarm, two other suspects arrested with him and later released have reportedly spread rumors among prisoners that El-Akkad was converting and baptizing people into Christianity. “Now everyone treats him badly,” the relative said.

So far the sheikh has suffered mostly verbal abuse over these accusations from his interrogators, prison guards and other prisoners, his family said. But in one incident reported in September, a prisoner from an extremist group attacked El-Akkad and beat him severely until other cellmates intervened.

“He could easily be killed,” a member of El-Akkad’s family told Compass. “These [extremist] people are not normal. They are provoked by any word he says, so they are always trying to attack him. They could just kill him for the name of God.”

Seven years ago, El-Akkad was arrested and jailed in a case given considerable press coverage in Cairo newspapers. As the leading “emir” of a Muslim group in a mosque in Al-Haram, in the Giza area adjacent to Cairo , he had become well-known and revered by people throughout the neighborhood.

But some began to say they had seen El-Akkad in their dreams and started referring to him as Al-Mahdi, a messianic figure in Islamic writings whom many devout Muslims believe will appear at the end of time. Alarmed, the SSI arrested El-Akkad as a potential threat to public order and national security, allegedly for claiming to be a prophet.

Although the sheikh was accused of committing blasphemy under Article 98F of the Egyptian penal code, no formal verdict was ever handed down, and he was released three months later. When he was set free, authorities stated that he was not responsible for the rumors spread about him.

But concerning El-Akkad’s most recent arrest and extended detention, Egyptian media have reported nothing.

Although the sheikh is apparently again under arrest for alleged blasphemy, “There is no formal accusation against him,” his lawyer said. “In all of his interrogations, they are accusing him of saying things against the prophet Mohammed, or the Quran, or the prophet’s friends. He has never been asked if he has changed his religion.”

The sheikh was asked informally by the prosecutor whether or not he was saying his prayers and fasting during the month of Ramadan, but these conversations were not recorded in the transcript of the interrogations, his lawyer noted.

El-Akkad’s detention has been renewed every 45 days under the provisions of Egypt ’s notorious Emergency Laws, which allow prosecutors and the state security police to ignore court orders and jail citizens indefinitely without charges.

When El-Akkad was finally brought to court for the first time on October 24, the presiding judge asked him what he thought about the accusation against him.

“What am I accused of?” he asked. The judge referred the question to the state prosecutor, whose response was noncommittal: “We’ll see.” Without further comment, the judge renewed the sheikh’s detention for another 45 days.

An engineer, El-Akkad was running a private trade office at the time of his arrest. With his business temporarily closed, his wife’s minimal salary at the Ministry of Health is the sole support for her and their three children. The family has been forced to move to another location, fleeing mounting rumors about the reason for his arrest.

The jailed, full-bearded sheikh is the author of one book, entitled Islam: the Religion.

“He is not a fanatic,” El-Akkad’s wife told his lawyer three months after her husband’s arrest. “He loves God and discussions about religion, and he was assisting in conferences and seminars about religion with Christians and Muslims.”