Egypt Orders Retrial in Massacre of Coptic Christians
Ninety-two men acquitted over a massacre that left 20 Christians and a Muslim dead, and four who were jailed only on lesser charges, must face a retrial, an Egyptian court ruled Monday, reported AFP.
All 96, who were tried in February, were ordered to appear again before a court in the southern city of Sohag, just north of Kosheh, where the massacre occurred on January 2, 2000, said the agency.
The retrial takes place against the backdrop of occasional outbreaks of violence between the Coptic and Muslim communities, the most recent having been riots in Cairo sparked by a tabloid's fabricated account of an immoral monk.
The cassation court said it would set the date for the new trial in one week.
It did not list the reasons for the retrial.
Mamduh Nakhla, a Coptic Christian lawyer involved in the case as well as the director of the Cairo-based Word Center for Human Rights, welcomed the ruling.
"The ruling has been highly welcomed by the Copts and we think it restores trust in the Egyptian justice system and law. It meets the expectations of the Copts who had been expecting it," he said.
"The retrial will give us an opportunity to submit new evidence against the accused," Nakhla said. "Also we can demand compensation."
Egypt's Coptic Christian clerics had denounced the verdict of the first trial as sending a signal to the country's Muslim majority to kill Christians.
On February 22, State Prosecutor Maher Abdel Wahed called for a retrial, saying that the court in the first trial had acquitted the accused "without resorting to a detailed and sufficient verification of the facts and evidence presented during the trial."
Coptic Christians account for around five million of Egypt's 66 million people, according to official statistics. However, the Coptic Church said its flock numbers around ten million.
The case, popularly dubbed Al Kosheh II, tried a total of 96 people, both Muslim and Coptic Christian, from the southern towns of Al Kosheh and Dar Al Salam accused of violent rioting on January 2, 2000 that resulted in the deaths of 21 people, 20 of them Copts.
The fighting erupted in Al Kosheh, some 450 kilometers south of Cairo, following an argument between a Muslim woman and a Coptic shopkeeper. Riots quickly spread to the neighboring village of Dar Al Salam, increasing the number of casualties.
But though 38 of the 57 Muslim defendants faced charges of murder, no one was convicted of the charge. Christian defendants faced charges of looting, arson, inciting violence and attempted murder, but all were acquitted, according to a report by Al Ahram Weekly in February.
The harshest penalty was handed down against Fayez Amin Abdel-Rehim, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor for illegal possession of weapons. He was also sentenced to two years behind bars for manslaughter. Mohamed Fawzi Shabib was sentenced to two years in prison, also for manslaughter, while Abul-Ela Ahmed Abdelal and El Fangari Abdu Shaker, each got one year for damaging property.
The surprising court ruling was met with radically mixed reactions from defendants' and victims families, as well as observers concerned over the repercussions of the trial. The acquitted Muslims and Christians were obviously delighted, but widespread relief was punctuated by grief and screams of rage that the trial and verdict were unfair, said Al Ahram.
The English weekly quoted analysts as saying that the verdicts were intentionally light in order to avoid fanning the flames of sectarian strife, but families of the 20 Coptic victims and the clergy of the Al Balyana bishopric were outraged.
In delivering the rulings, presiding judge Mohamed Afifi blamed three priests, who had not been brought to trial, for failing to stop the quarrel from escalating into riots.
"Had they [the priests] cooperated with the police, the events would have ended as a simple fight between a merchant and a woman haggling over the price of a pair of shoes," judge Afifi said.
Explaining the verdict, Afifi said it was impossible to determine who was behind the killings. However, he insisted that the "investigation proved that the three priests had contributed to igniting the fire of sedition." The judge urged church authorities to punish the priests, saying "they should be held morally responsible for the escalation [in violence]."
In an interview with Al Ahram Weekly, Father Paula of the Balyana bishopric, to which Al Kosheh village is attached, expressed his anger and frustration with the verdict, describing it as "unfair" and saying it has aggravated the sentiments of victims' families. Father Paula contended that the verdict was "too lenient" and "made light" of the value of Christians' lives – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)