Coptic Christians in Egypt Say They Can’t Get Justice

Egypt’s Christian community is frustrated and angry after an Egyptian court acquitted three Muslim men in an assault on an elderly grandmother, in a case illustrating the sectarian tensions in the country that has dragged on for several years, The Jerusalem Post reports.

The court in Minya-Upper Egypt handed down its decision last week in the 2016 assault, which included the stripping naked of then-70-year-old Suad Thabet and the burning down of her home, and four other homes, as well as the injury of three other Copts.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) in a statement after the verdict was announced on December 17 warned of “the repercussions of not condemning those involved in these attacks, which entrench the absence of justice and discrimination between citizens on the basis of religion, and encourage the recurrence of such sectarian attacks, in addition to what they represent in terms of a message of tolerance of incidents of violence against women in a public forum.”

On May 20, 2016, the village of Al-Karm in the Abu Qurqas district, south of the Minya Governorate, located 180 miles south of Cairo, was the site of sectarian attacks on several Christian residents of the village, in the wake of rumors of an affair between a local Christian man and a Muslim woman. When a Muslim mob did not find the man at home, they threw Thabet and a daughter-in-law out in the street and stripped Thabet of her clothing in front of her home. Meanwhile, a gang of angry Muslims roamed the village streets chanting angry and hostile slogans at Christian citizens in general.

“They dragged me out, burned the house, threw me in front of the house, and took off my clothes just as my mother gave birth to me … they did not even leave my underwear, and I shouted and cried,” Thabet said. “And then our Lord saved me from their hands … And people took me inside their house, I took an old jalabiya [a traditional garment in Upper Egypt] and put it on.”  When some of the assailants returned looking for Thabet, her neighbors told them that she was not there.

The southern province of Minya is home to a large number of Copts, Egypt’s biggest Christian community.

A week after the attack, on May 27, 2016, a delegation of members of the Egyptian Parliament and leaders from Minya tried to hold a traditional reconciliation session and close the case without involving the courts. They went to Anba Makarios, bishop of Minya and Abu Qurqas, but he refused to receive them, and the Copts of the village refused to reconcile. The Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas, in a statement announcing its rejection of the traditional reconciliation session, called for the arrest of those involved in the attack and for them to be brought to trial in an Egyptian court. 

“All Egyptian women have all our esteem, respect and love. It is not appropriate for this to happen again. The law and accountability must be applied no matter how many wrongdoers,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said days after the attack. “I hope that this lady will not be sad. We do not accept the discrimination between us as Egyptians and whoever erred should be held accountable, starting with the president of the republic,” Sisi also said.

Over the last four years, the Egyptian courts have heard three different cases regarding this incident. On April 7, 2018, the Abu Qurqas misdemeanor court in Minya sentenced Thabet’s son Attiya Daniel to two years in prison with hard labor for committing adultery, and in absentia sentenced the Muslim woman he is alleged to have been involved with. His sentence later was reduced to one year. The only witness to the alleged adultery was an 11-year-old girl. Thabet’s son served his sentence and left the village with his wife and children. 

The Public Prosecutor issued arrest warrants and summonses for several defendants in the case of the assault on Thabet, known as the “lady of Al-Karm,” and the burning of her home. All but one were later released on bail that ranged from one thousand to tens of thousands of Egyptian pounds. The case was later closed due to insufficient evidence.

In response, Thabet’s attorney filed a grievance against the Public Prosecutor’s decision. On February 15, 2017, the third circuit of the Minya Criminal Court decided to refer the accused in the incident for criminal trial, and ordered a reinvestigation of the case. 

The first court hearings began in April 2018, but soon the trial was postponed, in part because the judges felt embarrassed to hear the case. Finally, on Jan. 11, 2020, the Minya Criminal Court sentenced the three defendants in absentia to ten years in prison and 100,000 pounds in civil compensation.

But on Dec. 17, 2020, the Minya Criminal Court acquitted the three defendants of their indecent assault on Thabet. A day after the verdict, on Dec. 18, Egypt’s Public Prosecutor ordered his office to study the possibility of an appeal.  

“The delay in ruling in the case and the litigation procedures raises many questions, bearing in mind that in similar cases, we find that the judiciary moves quickly and orders the arrest of the assailants. This did not happen,” attorney Nabil Ghobrial told The Media Line.

“The law gave the judge the authority to withdraw from hearing the case without giving reasons … We appreciate the Public Prosecution’s decision to study the aspects of an appeal against the defendants’ innocent ruling,” Ghobrial added.

On the day of the most recent verdict, a brief statement was issued by the diocese of Minya, stating that Bishop Makarios met with Thabet after the announcement of the decision. Makarios told The Media Line that he met with Thabet “to support her psychologically and spiritually.”

“I see this ruling as an imperfection, but we have nothing but the Egyptian judiciary to turn to. Mrs. Suad, after hearing the court’s ruling, feeling frustrated, said that if she does not obtain justice on earth, she is certain that God will prevail and that the door to heaven is open,” Ehab Ramzy, an attorney for Thabet, and a new member of the Egyptian Parliament for the Minya governorate, told The Media Line.

“Until now, the attorney general was waiting for the court to issue the reasons for its ruling in order to decide how he will appeal this verdict. It is a very quick decision and he has our full gratitude and appreciation because his decision healed the wounds of many and gave hope that this woman would get justice. There is nothing new so far,” Ramzy said.

“The Egyptian judiciary sees that stripping an old woman in the street is not a crime because she is a woman and a Christian! This is a woman from rural Egypt, who is over seventy, and she is a poor Coptic woman, meaning the weakest of the community. A woman has been in conflict with the state for more than four years to obtain her rights. Four years in the courts, prosecutions, divisions, negotiations and pressure. She wins a round, loses a round, and in today’s round she loses,” Coptic Christian activist Beshoy Tamry, 33, a web developer, said.

“I am proud of Mrs. Suad and her struggle for her rights. It is an inspiring story for future generations. Even if she lost [in court], she won by exposing the dirty morals and those who protect it,” Tamry added.