Instead of convicting the Muslim suspects accused of killing 21 Christians in the El-Kosheh massacre a little over a year ago, a judge in southern Egypt has accused local Coptic clergy of responsibility for the three-day rampage.

In his opening statement, Judge Mohammed Affify accused three priests in the predominantly Christian village of failing to stop the rioting.

During the mayhem, which erupted between December 31, 1999, and January 2, 2000, 21 Christians were killed and 260 of their homes and businesses destroyed or looted in El-Kosheh and surrounding villages in southern Egypt's Sohag governate. The only Muslim who died was shot accidentally by a fellow Muslim.

The trial began last June. Affify said in his verdict on February 5 that the three priests, named Gabriel, Bessada, and Isaac, "shoulder the moral responsibility for escalating the events," and he urged church authorities to discipline them.

In its formal verdict, the Sohag court acquitted all but four of the 96 suspects in the El-Kosheh trial, including seven defendants who had eluded arrest. A total of 57 Muslims were tried, 38 of them for murder. The most serious charges against the 32 Christian defendants were looting, arson, and attempted murder.

The El-Kosheh massacre was Egypt's worst clash in 20 years between the country's predominantly Muslim citizens and Coptic Christians, who constitute 10 percent of the population. It was preceded by a controversial murder investigation in the same village 16 months earlier, when police were accused of mistreating and torturing 1,000 Coptic villagers to force confessions implicating a Christian as the culprit.

"Not Altogether Unexpected"

Affify ruled that the prosecution "appeared to have had trouble identifying who was responsible for which acts." He said the lack of convictions was due to insufficient evidence, contradictory testimony, inaccurate official investigations, commonality of charges, and exaggerated reports.

Four Muslim defendants were found guilty of lesser crimes. No defendants were present in the court when the verdict was announced, since Affify had ordered the surprise release of all 89 defendants at the conclusion of trial hearings in early December.

Affify explained the unprecedented, bail-free release of murder suspects as a concession to approaching Ramadan and Christmas holidays for Egypt's Muslim and Christian citizens. But skeptical Coptic activists said it was meant to allow the perpetrators to escape the country.

The stiffest penalty—10 years in prison—was meted out to Mayez Amin Abdel Rahim, a Muslim found guilty of possessing an illegal weapon during the El-Kosheh riots. The three other Muslims were found guilty of deliberately setting a truck trailer on fire. One was sentenced to a two-year jail term, and two received one-year sentences.

Delivered amid tight security, the verdict was over in 15 minutes. Foreign journalists were barred from the court, guarded by riot police in full gear and plainclothes officers on nearby rooftops.

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