Egypt Jails Christian for Three Years for 'Insulting Islam'

Monday, August 7, 2000

Defense Appeal for El-Kosheh Copt Set for August 8
by Barbara G. Baker

ISTANBUL, August 7 (Compass) -- An Egyptian court sentenced Coptic Christian Sourial Gayed Isshak to three years in prison at hard labor in mid July, convicted on charges of insulting the Muslim religion.

The guilty verdict, handed down July 16 by the Dar el-Salam Court of Misdemeanors in the strife-torn Sohag governate, was read by Presiding Justice Hassan Ismail.

Isshak's lawyer, Mamduh Nakhla, promptly filed for appeal of the verdict and its unusually harsh sentence. A court appeals hearing on the case is scheduled for August 8, the weekly "Watani" newspaper reported.

Under Article 161 of the Egyptian Penal Code, it is a punishable misdemeanor to "insult one of the heavenly religions." According to Nakhla, however, the maximum penalty for conviction of a misdemeanor is a two-year prison sentence.

"This is the first time in the history of Egyptian courts such an extremely harsh judgment was awarded for such a minor charge," a Coptic observer in Cairo told Compass.

During Isshak's trial, prosecutor Hesham Kamel produced several Muslim witnesses who testified they had heard the Coptic shopkeeper curse Islam in the streets of El-Kosheh village last December 30, the day before violence broke out in the village over New Year's weekend. The three-day rampage left 21 Copts and one Muslim dead. In addition, 260 Coptic homes and businesses were destroyed in El-Kosheh and neighboring villages during the carnage.

After the prosecution and defense concluded their arguments at the final trial hearing on June 3, the "Watani" newspaper had reported "there was no substantial evidence produced to support the accusation."

Isshak is the first person sentenced in relation to the New Year's weekend violence, which targeted El-Kosheh's Coptic Christian population. Indictments were finally handed down some 10 weeks after the rampage, with 96 suspects accused of murder and another 37 charged with looting, arson and beatings.

Although most of the 38 Copts on the list were indicted on minor charges, all have been imprisoned without bail. However, several dozen of the Muslims jailed have since been released by local investigators for "lack of evidence."

Just weeks ago, an Egyptian Muslim author accused of blaspheming against Islam and the Koran was given a six-month suspended sentence.

Writer Salaheddin Mohsen had caused a hot national debate for his description of the Koran as a "book of ignorance" and for commenting that "Islam is the reason for the backwardness of the Muslim world." In contrast to Isshak's harsh sentence, however, Mohsen's verdict was simply a "slap on the wrist."

Isshak, 37 and married, has been imprisoned since March 9 over the slander allegations, which he categorically denied in court.

Copyright © 2000 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.