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A criminal court in Egypt's Sohag governate released without bail all 89 defendants charged in the New Year's massacre in El-Kosheh village, promising a final verdict against the suspects on January 9.

An eyewitness of the December 2-7 trial proceedings called it "unprecedented" in Egypt that several dozen murder suspects would be released without bail a month before their verdict was determined.

According to a Reuters report, 57 of the released defendants were Muslim and 32 were Christian, with an additional seven suspects who have eluded arrest still "at large."

Quoted in today's government-oriented Al-Ahram newspaper, Presiding Justice Mohammed Afify of the Sohag Criminal Court specified that his decision to release all the defendants did not necessarily "predict the orientation of the verdict" expected next month.

Rather, considering the age and health of some of the suspects, Afify said he was ordering the defendants released in deference to approaching holiday seasons for both Muslims and Christians in Egypt. Now nearly halfway through their annual month of fasting, Muslims will observe the feast concluding Ramadan during the last week of December, just after Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas.

The surprise release order came after defense lawyers rested their concluding arguments at the close of six consecutive days of trial hearings on the case.

According to Al-Ahram, Judge Afify ordered the oldest Muslim and oldest Christian among the defendants to be released from the iron cages in which they were confined in the courtroom. After Afify asked Fassad Hefni Mohammed, 52, and Fawzy Haim Abdel Shehid, 64, to shake hands, Al-Ahram said, "They embraced each other amid the applause of those present."

Declaring that Egypt's ...

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December 2000

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