A year since members of the so-called Islamic State killed 20 Egyptian Copts and one Ghanaian in Libya, Egypt is set to judge four young Copts for alleged blasphemy.
The four teenagers, aged 15 to 17, appeared in a 30-second video clip, mocking the militants’ show of Islamic piety in beheading the 21.
The video was apparently recorded by their Coptic teacher, Gad Younan. He has already been sentenced for “insulting Islam”. The teenagers’ case is pending a verdict on 25 Feb.
Younan’s first hearing took place in Minya (223km south of Cairo) on 29 Oct., 2015. The hearing had been postponed twice before. On 31 Dec., the teacher was sentenced to three years, though released on bail pending appeal.
The case against Muller Atef Edward, Bassem Amgad Hanna, Albert Ashraf Hanna and Clinton Maged Youssef has, likewise, been postponed twice before.
The video, taken while on a church trip, shows the boys mimicking Islamic rituals, with one of them signing, with his hand, a beheading of a supposed victim of jihadists.
In what appears to be a swipe at the Islamic State’s Libya atrocity, one boy is seen kneeling and crying out, “Oh Allah have mercy on us against wrongdoers! Oh Allah, protect us from Hellfire!“, while another, standing, motions to behead his kneeling colleague in front.
It’s somewhat ironic that the anticipated verdict against the Coptic teenagers might come a few days after today’s first anniversary of IS’s actual beheading of the 21 predominantly Coptic Christians in Libya.
In IS’s original footage, released 12 Feb., 2015, 21 Christians were shown being beheaded by the Islamists on a beach in Libya. Videos produced by Islamic jihadists often contain long diatribes against Christianity and Christians, while citing verses of the Quran.
“This is a harsh and misplaced judgement,” said lawyer Maher Naguib, who is acting for both the boys and Younan, describing the not-yet-appealed three-year sentence against the Coptic teacher.
“I was not given enough room by the court to defend my client,” he added, noting that his request for the “mocking” clip to be shown in court was turned down.
“I asked the judge to show the video in my presence. But he said the case was ‘already settled’ based on the boys’ confession and the Egyptian official broadcaster’s transcript report,” said Naguib, who said that the broadcaster’s report was “opinionated”.
“The [Egyptian Radio & Television Union’s] report said the boys were ‘deriding’ Muslim prayers. It failed to mention the ‘beheading’ mock gesture, when it was supposed to give a verbatim transcript. It said the boys were ‘misrepresenting’ Islamic prayer. That’s an opinion,” said Naguib.
Fearing the court was set to hand down a harsh sentence, he said, “I’m not optimistic about the outcome of the next hearing”. A decision on appealing against Younan’s sentence will be taken based on the verdict in the boys’ case, Naguib added.
Both cases are set against a slew of blasphemy cases in Egypt, which have recently increased to the tune of more than one case per month.
“This is an issue of fair justice. When you have a general climate where the public, prosecution, defence lawyers, plaintiffs and even judges all share a particular culture, it’s a very bad situation indeed,” says lawyer Hamdi al-Assyouti, the author of the book ‘Blasphemy in Egypt’.
And it’s not only a legal penalty that those accused of blasphemy have to endure.
“Gad has been suspended from his work since April 2015 when the case started,” said Khamis Younan, his brother.
“He’s been without salary. Forced to relocate from his town together with his wife and children, every time he tries to find work a criminal record and the nature of his accusation stand in the way of him earning a living,” he said.
A series of riots and death threats have dogged the boys and their families, as well as other Christians, in their native Al-Nasriyah village in Minya, Upper Egypt.
The boys had to be delivered by their parents to the police station in April 2015, following violent protests by angry Muslims, in which homes were attacked and demands were made that Christians be banished from the area, after word of the video became public.