An appeal could be filed as soon as today, an official at the State Security Prosecution office told the AP. The court acquitted defendants even though charges from premeditated murder down to fighting and threatening public order were proved, the source said.
The Feb. 5 acquittals and light sentences for the violence last year in el-Kusheh village were believed to have been an attempt to avoid flaring further sectarian violence, AP said. But Coptic Christian Bishop Wissa of el-Balyana village, whose diocese includes el-Kusheh, called the ruling an “open invitation for any one Muslim to kill Christians.”
Twenty-one people, nearly all of them Christians, died in the violence that erupted Jan. 2, 2000, a few days after an argument between a Muslim customer and a Coptic Christian shopkeeper in el-Kusheh, 275 miles south of Cairo. The fighting spread to the neighboring village of Dar el-Salam.
Fifty-seven Muslims were put on trial, 38 of them for murder. The most serious charges against the 39 Christian defendants were looting, arson and attempted murder. State Security prosecutors, who handle cases related to national security, had sought the death penalty for those accused of murder.
The harshest penalty — 10 years in prison — was handed to Mayez Amin Abdel-Rahim, convicted of accidental homicide and illegal possession. Another Muslim man was sentenced to two years for accidental homicide; two others received a year in jail for damaging a car.
Pope Shenouda III, the spiritual leader of Egypt´s Coptic Christian minority, has rejected the trial court´s decision as “unacceptable.” In his verdict, presiding Judge Mohamed Affifi said authorities appeared to have had trouble identifying who was responsible for which acts.