23 January 2011
Last Sunday the State Security Court, whose rulings cannot be appealed, convicted and sentenced to death Mohammed Ahmed Hassanein, also known as Hammam al-Kamouni, for killing six Copts and one Muslim at midnight on 6 January 2010. That fateful night in the southern town of Nag Hammadi, the gunman opened fire from a moving car on Christian worshippers as they left church after Midnight Mass on the Eve of Coptic Christmas, killing the victims and wounding nine others.
Kamouni and two accomplices, Qorashi Abul-Haggag and Hindawi Sayed Mohamed were caught by the police a few days later, and admitted to having committed the Christmas Eve shootout. Mohamed had driven the car while Kamouni opened random fire at the congregation leaving the church. Further down the road Kamouni disembarked and shot two Copts who were driving home after Mass with their Muslim friend, killing all three. His two accomplices waited in the car and, according to court records, egged him on during the shooting,
The police found the gun which had been used to fire the shots, and it was found to match the shots found at the site of the crime and in the bodies of the victims. Kamouni is notorious in Nag Hammadi for being a seasoned criminal; he had been convicted in 12 crimes throughout the past years and had spent time in prison from 2002 till 2004. Investigations gave no indication of there being others behind the crime. The criminals were brought to trial.
Amid tight security, with hundreds of riot police sealing off roads leading to the courthouse in Qena, last Sunday’s verdict was the outcome of an 11-month-long trial. In what the lawyer George Sobhy, who was among the victim’s defence team, describes as a first in an Egyptian courtroom, there was a special security team to guard the judges and another, headed by a General, to guard the defendants in the cage.
When the presiding judge Mohamed Fahmy Abdul-Maugoud read the verdict Kamouni heard it in stupefied silence. He was convicted of first-degree murder and charges related to threatening the peace of the community.
The two other defendants accused of being accomplices face up to 25 years in prison. Their verdicts will be announced on 20 February.
According to the lawyer Ihab Ramzy, accomplices are usually given the same sentence as the main defendant, but it remains the judge’s decision whether or not the case warrants that. For his part, the international lawyer Awad Shafiq who represents the victims told Watani he regarded the verdict as fair and satisfactory to the victims’ families.
Kamal Nashed, whose 17-year-old son Abanoub lost his life in the drive-by shooting, told Watani he had been closely following up on the details of the trial and that he now felt redeemed by the verdict. “It is a just verdict,” he said. “We’re waiting to see what the other two defendants will get.” Only when criminals against Copts are justly penalised, he said, can hate or sectarian crimes be reduced. Had this verdict come earlier, he insisted, maybe the Alexandria bombing or the Samalout shooting could have been avoided.
The father of 18-year-old Bola who was also a victim of the shooting was equally content. “True, nothing can bring me my son back,” he said. “But now we at least know there is justice for us in our homeland.” The same sentiment was expressed by Walid Hamed, father of Ayman, the Muslim who was killed with his two friends in the car.
Copts in general received the news of the sentence with comfort.
The Cairo press interpreted the verdict as a conciliatory gesture by the State to the Copts. Following the New Year Eve bombing at the Church of the Saints in Alexandria, which claimed more than 23 lives and left some 90 injured, Coptic anger had exploded against what they perceived as longstanding State injustice towards them.
This is one of the very few times a criminal who commits a crime against Copts is taken to court and convicted. The customary practice, which Copts have incessantly condemned, was for the local politicians and security officials to apply intolerable pressure on the Copts to sit down with their offenders and ‘reconcile’, thereby relinquishing all their rights.