An Egyptian court sentenced 12 Christians to life in prison and acquitted eight Muslims on Monday in a case set off by religious tensions in the country's south. The Christians were found guilty of sowing public strife, the possession of illegal weapons and shooting dead two Muslims in April of last year in Minya province, about 220 kilometers (135 miles) south of Cairo.
The violence started last year when a Muslim microbus driver, angered by a speed bump outside a wealthy Christian man's villa, got into a scuffle with security guards who beat him. After returning to his village of Abu Qurqas that evening, he rounded up the villagers who then gathered outside an ultraconservative Islamist group's main office there to protest his beating. According to rights researcher Ishak Ibrahim of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), the Christians nearby thought they were going to be attacked and shot from their rooftops down at the crowd, killing two and wounding two others. For several days after that, angry villagers torched dozens of Christian homes and stores.
The eight Muslims on trial in the same case had been charged with possession of illegal weapons and burning down the Christian-owned homes and stores after the shooting.
"The fact that the Muslims were acquitted means that the attorney general's investigation from the beginning was faulty and unfair because there was evidence to prove these men had burned Christian property," Ibrahim said.
The State Security Court's ruling cannot be appealed. The ruling military council SCAF is the only entity with the power to request a retrial. (See also this list of incidents involving sectarian tensions by Human Rights Watch)