ISTANBUL (Compass) -- Egypt's top-ranking Court of Cassation has announced it will hear an appeal requested by the Egyptian prosecutor general, questioning the blanket acquittal of all but four of 96 defendants in the controversial El-Kosheh massacre case.
Set for May 21, the appeal hearing before the Court of Cassation is expected to either uphold the original February 5 verdict, or order a retrial.
Deadly Muslim-Christian clashes that erupted in the predominantly Christian village in southern Egypt over New Year's weekend of 2000 left 21 Christians dead and 260 of their homes and businesses destroyed or looted. The only Muslim victim was shot dead accidentally by a fellow Muslim.
In the Sohag Criminal Court's formal verdict, presiding Judge Mohammed Affify convicted four Muslims of lesser crimes connected with the rampage, meting out 10, two and one-year sentences for possessing an illegal weapon and setting a truck trailer afire. The remaining defendants, including 38 Muslims charged with the murders, were acquitted.
"There is no doubt that 21 people were killed, and the killers must be brought to justice," Prosecutor General Maher Abdel-Wahid told the "Al-Ahaly" newspaper on February 27. His office formally contested the Sohag court's verdict on February 22.
Abdel-Wahid declared that the ruling had been marred by a wrong application of the law and had failed to provide sufficient verification of the facts and evidence presented. He also found the court's reasons "insufficient" for acquitting certain defendants, he said.
The prosecutor general noted that the killings in El-Kosheh were not accidental homicides, but rather premeditated murders. "If the victims' families were not able to identify the killers as the judge claimed, it was the job of the police and the duty of the court to make the identification," Abdel-Wahid said.
The prosecutor general's decision to appeal the El-Kosheh acquittals came after two weeks of widespread outrage from Egypt's Coptic community, which comprises at least 10 percent of the national population.
Coptic Pope Shenouda III openly rejected the verdict, telling Cairo reporters, "We want to challenge this ruling. We don't accept it." Although Pope Shenouda rarely voices such public criticism, he was reportedly incensed that in the judge's opening statements to the verdict, the judge singled out three Coptic priests to blame for "escalating" the rampage.
Bishop Wissa, whose Coptic diocese includes El-Kosheh, called the judge's ruling "a shame that defames the reputation of Egypt" and an invitation for more violence.
Only six days after the February 5 verdict, four Christian homes in El-Kosheh were attacked with kerosene and one destroyed with fire. One of the homeowners who reported the incident to the police was interrogated the following day, tortured and forced to sign a statement, charged by a public prosecutor with perpetrating the whole incident and forced to post bail for his own release.
"These unfortunate incidents ... will continue to be repeated so long as the victims are accused of being the perpetrators," Bishop Wissa commented afterwards.
Describing the verdict as "a matter difficult to be understood and accepted," "Watani" newspaper editor Youssef Sidhom concluded his editorial on February 11 with the question, "Will peace and security really prevail [in] El-Kosheh, or are we unconsciously planting the seeds of El-Kosheh III?"
"Many Copts see the El-Kosheh massacre as the most pernicious and serious development in the relationship between ordinary Muslims and Christians in Egypt," Dr. Imad Bolos wrote in the Winter 2001 issue of "Middle East Quarterly." "More than any other incident, it epitomized the criminal negligence of the Egyptian administration, represented in its police force, when it comes to protecting Coptic lives and property."