Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2003
Issue No. 630
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Kosheh file reopened

Another appeal is on the way in the case of Egypt's worst incident of sectarian strife

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A file photo of some of the 93 defendants allegedly involved in the El-Kosheh conflict
Last month's court verdict in the retrial of the so-called "El-Kosheh" case -- involving Muslim-Coptic Christian clashes that erupted three years ago in the village of El- Kosheh, some 450 kilometres south of Cairo, claiming the lives of 20 Copts and one Muslim -- has again proven unsatisfactory to the prosecutor-general, reports Jailan Halawi .

The court found just two of the 93 men being retried guilty, sentencing Mayez Amin Abdel-Rehim to a total of 15 years in prison (10 with hard labour for illegal possession of weapons, three for manslaughter and two more for illegal assembly), and Mohamed Fawzi Shabib to three years for manslaughter, and six months for illegal assembly.

According to Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed, the 27 February verdict "failed for the second time to implement the law". In a memorandum to the Court of Cassation contesting the verdict, Abdel- Wahed also said that "evidence had been tampered with".

It is the second time the prosecution has been unsatisfied with a Sohag State Security court's attempt to close the book on Egypt's bloodiest sectarian conflict. Three years ago, an argument between a Muslim woman and a Coptic shopkeeper in El-Kosheh turned into a riot, which spread to neighbouring villages, and caused dozens of casualties.

At the original trial, in 2001, four of the 96 defendants had been convicted, but none had been found guilty of murder. Abdel-Rehim also got the harshest sentence, a total of 12 years behind bars, while Shabib got two years. Dissatisfied with the verdicts, the prosecution appealed at the Court of Cassation, which quashed the ruling and ordered a retrial.

This time, the entire showdown will take place at the Cassation Court itself. If it decides to overrule the 27 February verdict, the court itself will then hear the case for the final time. It the appeal is denied, the latest ruling will become final.

Some observers did not share the prosecutor's view. A former head of the State Council told the Al- Ahram Weekly that the ruling was "as fair as it could be. This is a case of a mob riot; the accusations cannot be levelled against specific persons because of the large number of people involved in the violence."

Other political analysts interviewed by the Weekly called the verdict "fair" and consistent with the evidence submitted to the court. According to sources close to the investigations, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity, "it is very difficult to prove a murder charge against any of the defendants since there is not enough material evidence to convict them."

Other analysts argued -- as they did after the first trial -- that the verdicts were intentionally light in order to avoid fanning the flames of sectarian strife. Coptic clergymen and the families of the 20 Coptic victims, meanwhile, remain outraged, reproaching what they say is the authorities' failure to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice.

According to Diaa Rashwan, managing editor of the State of Religion in Egypt report issued by Al- Ahram's Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, the danger lies in "the feeling of injustice felt by Coptic Christians and the families of the deceased. Rashwan said this feeling -- which "should be remedied at its social roots" -- was linked to the "incorrect" perception that the investigations and court deliberations were biased.

Following the clashes at El- Kosheh, Egyptian authorities launched a series of measures to promote inter-faith dialogue, especially via television broadcasts. In January, all Egyptians marked Coptic Christmas as a national public holiday for the first time, and President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal attended a televised midnight mass at St Mark's Cathedral in Cairo.

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