Minya Criminal Court has sentenced in absentia 23 men charged with burning five Coptic-owned houses in the village of al-Karm, Minya, in May 2016. The 23 men were handed sentences to life in prison, whereas a 24th, Muhammad Muhsen Farghali, the only one who attended the trial, was acquitted.
The case goes back to May 2016 when the village of al-Karm in Abu-Qurqas, Minya, some 250km south of Cairo, witnessed an attack by the Muslim villagers against the Copts on rumour of an illicit affair between a Coptic man and a Muslim woman, both married and in their early thirties. Islam bans such relations, even though it condones reciprocal affairs between Muslim men and non-Muslim women. The 2016 al-Karm affair led to an attack on the home of the Copt’s parents—he had already fled the village together with his wife and four daughters—his elderly father Abdu Attiya was beaten up, and his 70-year-old mother, Suad Thabet, was dragged out, stripped naked, and beaten.
The Muslim woman’s husband, Nazeer Ishaq, was leader of the attack against Ms Thabet. The Muslim villagers also attacked the Copts in the village, looting and burning seven Coptic-owned houses. Twenty-four Muslims were caught and charged with committing acts of violence, and arson.
The attack against Ms Thabet shocked and outraged Egyptians, and brought on an apology from President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi who also ordered that all the houses damaged—among them Ms Thabet’s house—should be repaired by and at the expense of the Armed Forces, which was promptly done.
Mr Attiya Jr was later found guilty of an illicit affair with a Muslim woman, and sentenced to one year in prison.
Ms Thabet took legal proceedings against Ishaq and two accomplice. On 11 January 2020, Minya Criminal Court sentenced each of Mr Ishaq and his two accomplices to 10 years in prison. The ruling was appealed, however, and the case is still in court.
In February 2020, just a few days before their case was seen in court, the Coptic owners of four of the five houses that were burned in 2016 went back on their testimony against the defendants charged with burning their houses. The said they had been mistaken in the identity of those who set their houses on fire; it was dark at night and they could not see them properly. They thus ‘reconciled’ with the 24 defendants. The Coptic owners of the fifth house: Ms Thabet, her husband, and their son-in-law, refused to conciliate.‘
Reconciliation’ is a term used to denote an out-of-court settlement upon which the legal authorities drop the charges and dismiss the case or, if it is already in court, the defendants are acquitted. It is a tradition followed mainly in rural communities, and is notorious when Copts are involved since the terms of settlement are usually unfair and oppressive to the Copts who are more often than not pressured or threatened to accept them. Upon signing a ‘conciliation agreement’ they automatically sign off all legal rights.
According to Ihab Ramzy, Ms Thabet’s lawyer, the Copts accepted conciliation without any pressure, claiming it was “the outcome of peaceful coexistence and neighbourliness”.
Citing threats by the defendants and their families, the Copts said they feared vicious retaliation by the village Muslims should the court rule against them. “Who can guarantee us and our families safety and protection if those 23 men are sentenced?” the Copts said. “We just want to live in to peace.”
“Unfortunately,” Dr Ramey said, “the change of the Copts’ testimonies is expected to negatively affect Ms Thabet’s case in court.”
Owing to the conciliation agreement and the change in testimonies of the Copts, the 22 who were sentenced in absentia should be acquitted in a retrial once they turn themselves in.
17 September 2020