CAIRO, EGYPT (ANS) -- In a repeat of an earlier verdict, the Sohag Criminal Court in Egypt yesterday acquitted nearly all 96 suspects charged with atrocities in connection with violence which broke out in the village of El Kosheh in January 2000, leaving 21 Christians and a Muslim dead.
As in the previous February 2001 ruling, only four men received sentences, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
CSW reports that Mayez Amin Abdel Rahim was sentenced to 15 years for the killing of the sole Muslim victim, an increase of 5 years from the previous verdict. The other three men, all Muslims, received two-year and one- year sentences for setting alight a truck.
CSW reported the acquittals have come as a deep disappointment to Egypt's Christian minority, who had hoped to see justice done at the retrial.
"Coptic Bishop Wissa of Baliana Diocese, which includes El Kosheh, articulated the dismay of many in the Christian community. He told CSW: 'If those accused are really innocent, where are the real killers? The 21 Christians who were so brutally murdered in January 2000 did not kill themselves,' "CSW said.
The Bishop added: "If the perpetrators of the murders are allowed to walk free, it will be seen as a green light to kill Christians."
Mamdouh Nakhla, a lawyer at the Court of Cassation and General Manager of Al Kalema Human Rights Centre in Cairo, spoke of police negligence and complicity during the whole affair, from the outbreak of violence itself to withholding vital evidence during the trials.
He told CSW: "The killings occurred 48 hours after the police had imposed a curfew and 10,000 policemen were stationed in and around El Kosheh at the time. Moreover, during the trials, the police suppressed vital evidence such as fingerprints and suspected murder weapons."
Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, said: "We are shocked and dismayed at the latest turn of events. It is unacceptable for such brutality to go unpunished. We stand with the Christian community of Egypt in calling for the murderers of the 21 Christians to be found and brought to justice."
BACKGROUND TO THE CASE
CSW said the violence in El-Kosheh, which erupted over the Millennium weekend, stemmed from a dispute between a Muslim trader and a Christian shop-owner on Friday, December 31, 1999.
Muslim-owned kiosks and Christian-owned shops were damaged or destroyed that day as the violence escalated. While Saturday remained relatively quiet, Sunday saw the brutal murders of 21 Christians and a Muslim amid further violence. The lone Muslim killed was shot in a neighbouring village. Nobody claimed that Christians killed him.
During the violence, local security forces either stood by passively or became actively involved in the attacks. It is thus widely believed that the local security police bear responsibility for the escalation of the violence, CSW said.
CSW reported:"The Egyptian Government tried to hide the sectarian nature of the incident. Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak blamed subversive foreign elements for instigating the fighting, saying that the culprits behind the clashes were 'pushed from abroad.' "
An Egyptian State Security Court acquitted 96 murder suspects on February 5, 2001, CSW said. The Sohag Criminal Court found four defendants guilty, but only of lesser crimes connected with the massacre.
According to CSW, a penalty of 10 years imprisonment was handed down to Mayez Amin Abdel Rahim, a Muslim found guilty of possession of an illegal weapon during the riots. The other three, all Muslims, were found guilty of deliberately setting alight a truck trailer. One was sentenced to two years imprisonment and the other two were given one year sentences.
"This verdict shocked and outraged Egypt's Christian community," said CSW. "Coptic Bishop Wissa, whose diocese includes El-Kosheh, said that the verdict served as a green light for Muslims to kill Christians. Coptic Pope Shenouda III condemned the verdict and told reporters in Cairo at the time: 'We want to challenge this ruling. We don't accept it,' "
CSW said the office of Egypt's Prosecutor General, Maher Abdel Wahid, formally contested the Sohag court's verdict on February 22, 2001. "There is no doubt that 21 people were killed, and the killers must be brought to justice", Wahid told the Al-Ahaly newspaper on February 27.
Cairo's Court of Cassation, the highest appeals court in Egypt, announced it would hear the appeal, and on July 30 it overturned the initial verdict and ordered a retrial, which opened on May 7, 2002.
The final verdict, expected on January 27, 2003, was postponed until February.
"The El-Kosheh massacre was Egypt's worst clash in decades between the country's predominantly Muslim citizens and Coptic Christians, who comprise approximately ten percent of the population. Dubbed 'El-Kosheh II', the riots were preceded by a controversial murder investigation in the same village 16 months earlier, when police were accused of rounding up and torturing over 1,000 Coptic villagers to force confessions, implicating a Christian as the culprit," CSW concluded.