CAIRO, Egypt An Egyptian judge has sentenced 12 Coptic Christians to life in prison for their alleged part in a riot that left two Muslims and one Christian dead in the village of Abu-Qurgas. Eight Muslims charged with the same crimes in the same riot were acquitted.
In the lead-up to Egypt's first presidential election, the ruling has added to fears that justice will continue to elude the country's Christian minority. A second, lesser-known ruling, however, may be a cause for hope.
The life sentences against the 12 Coptic defendants May 21 shocked even Copts accustomed to one-sided legal judgments.
The ruling came against the backdrop of what is being touted as Egypt's first democratic presidential election. After the first round of voting May 23-24, unofficial results show the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Mursi in the lead with former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq close behind.
Mursi and Shafiq will face each other in a June 16-17 run-off.
The riot in Abu-Qurgas occurred on April 18 of last year. A wealthy Coptic Christian lawyer, Alaa' Rushdy, had placed a speed bump in front of his home, and a minibus driver angered by it got into an altercation with security guards at Rushdy's home.
Many of the particulars about the ensuing riot cannot be confirmed, but multiple Egyptian news outlets reported that guards at Rushdy's home or others at his house armed themselves at the sight of a gathering Muslim throng and began shooting in order to prevent an attack on their village. The reports agreed that Muslims then swept over Abu-Qugas, leaving dozens of Coptic homes and businesses in ashes.
There were no reports of any damage to Muslim-owned homes. Two Muslim men and one elderly Christian woman were killed.
Another 20 men 12 Christians and eight Muslims were arrested and charged with multiple crimes, including murder, disturbing the peace, inciting "sectarian strife," arson and possession of unlicensed firearms. All the Coptic Christian defendants were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, while none of the Muslim defendants were convicted.
Athanasious Williams, a Coptic Christian human rights lawyer and a leader in the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said the trial was unjust but there is "a history of unfair trials against the Christians when Muslims attack them."
Glimmer of hope
Meanwhile, a rare verdict in the case of a Muslim who killed a Christian held out a ray of hope for Copts. On May 14 an Egyptian court led by Chancellor Mahmoud Salama upheld a death sentence against Amir Ashour Abd al Zaher, a police officer who, in 2011, boarded a train, attacked a group of Christians and shot one dead.
Samia Sidhom, managing editor of Watani newspaper in Cairo, said the ruling went against "an unwritten rule" that judges cannot give the death penalty to a Muslim who kills a Christian.
"It is very rare," she said. "For many of us, the ruling came as a good surprise. Most of us expected he would be declared mentally deranged."
The attack occurred on the afternoon of Jan. 11, 2011, when Al Zaher, 29, a police officer posted in the province of Minya, boarded train number 979, began shouting "God is great" and opened fire on six Coptic Christians with a service pistol, according to witnesses.
Al Zaher killed Fathy Mousaad, in his 70s, with a shot to the chest. He turned the pistol on five others, wounding Mousaad's wife, Emily Hanna Tadaly, 61; Sabah Shenoda Soliman, 52; Marian Nabil Zaki, 25; Magy Nabil Zaki, 26; and Ehab Ashraf Kamal, 30. The survivors were taken to the Christian-operated Al Ray Al Saleh Hospital, treated and released. All those shot were Copts.
In court, Al Zaher claimed he wanted to sit in an empty seat next to Mousaad's daughter, and when Mousaad refused to let him, the two got into an argument ending with the Muslim pulling out his pistol and opening fire. Al Zaher's defense also made some effort to portray him as being mentally ill, and his wife testified to support the claim.
On March 12 a judge in Upper Egypt sentenced Al Zaher to death, which had to be approved by Egypt's Grand Mufti, a state appointed Muslim leader. No execution date has been set.
Regardless of who wins the Egyptian presidential election, Williams, the human rights attorney, said he is "expecting the worst in all cases."
Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party is connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Shafik, the former prime minister, is an independent candidate who at one time was a member of the Mubarak administration.
"If the Islamists take over, we will be like Iran, and they will enforce sharia law, and there will be no freedom of religion," Williams said. "There will be no freedoms of any kind. There will be no freedom in art, opinion or anything.
"If Shafik takes over, it will be the same way it was before."