CAIRO // Egyptian police have arrested and charged at least four Shiite Muslims, including a visiting Australian, with insulting and denying tenets of religion, a judicial source said on Tuesday.
The Shiites, who also include two Iraqis, were among two dozen men rounded up last week in a Cairo suburb, a security official said, adding that most of them have since been released.
The men, who were detained under a controversial emergency law, include Safaa al Awadi, a 44-year-old Australian man whose family said had disappeared after he failed to return to his home in Perth last month.
"They are charged with insulting religion and denying the tenets of faith," said the judicial source, adding they were remanded into custody for 15 days on Tuesday. It was not immediately clear how many of the Shiites arrested last week remained in detention.
Both judicial and security sources refused to share more details on the case. Australian media reported consular officials requested to see Awadi, said to be a bricklayer and father of seven. His daughter told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation he suffered from high blood pressure.
In May, Egypt's parliament extended for two years the state of emergency, in place since Islamists assassinated former president Anwar Sadat in 1981, but said it would limit the law to terrorism and narcotics cases. "It is an elastic law," said Emad Gad, an analyst with the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "If they decide that someone constitutes a threat to society, the person can be arrested."
Seven other Shiites have been in detention since mid-2009 and charged with "forming a group trying to spread Shiite ideology that harms the Islamic religion." Followers of Shiism, the predominant branch of Islam in Iran and Iraq, believe the Prophet Mohammed should have been succeeded by his cousin Ali rather than his companion Abu Bakr. Traditional Sunnis believe any suggestion that Abu Bakr was a usurper is tantamount to blasphemy.
Countries such as Egypt and Bahrain - where a Sunni monarchy rules a Shiite majority - have viewed Shiites with suspicion since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Egypt has accused of Iran of trying to gain a foothold in the country, while Bahrain last month charged 23 Shiite activists with forming a "terror network".