By Mada Masr –
The door was shut on the possibility of justice in a high profile sectarian case last week when the Court of Cassation upheld the acquittal of three men who assaulted Soad Thabet, 74, during sectarian riots in Minya over six years ago.
Thabet, a Coptic woman in the village of Karm, was assaulted by a Muslim mob in May 2016, after a rumor spread in the village about a relationship between Thabet’s son and a Muslim woman. The houses of a number of Coptic residents were looted and burned and Thabet was stripped naked and dragged through the streets of the village after her son fled, according to a statement from the Diocese of Minya and Abu Qurqas at the time.
Not only will the men who assaulted Thabet not be held accountable, but Thabet is facing litigation that could see her have to compensate the three men who assaulted her, MP Ihab Ramzy, who is part of Thabet’s legal team, told Mada Masr.
While the case attracted significant media attention, culminating with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi promising Thabet justice, civil society organizations and lawyers say that last week’s court ruling highlights the continued failings of the state to provide meaningful justice to Copts in sectarian violence cases.
Since the incident attracted national attention in 2016, it has wound its ways through the Egyptian justice system, where most sectarian cases — with the Minya governorate being a hotbed — are not even lucky enough to be heard.
That is largely because the state habitually resorts to customary reconciliation sessions when dealing with sectarian violence. “These sessions result in Copts losing their rights, as they are forced to comply with the demands of the majority, who are Muslim citizens opposed to holding prayers or the construction of churches — demands that are illegal and unconstitutional,” Ishaq Ibrahim, a religious freedoms researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) previously told Mada Masr.
Customary reconciliation is a traditional practice carried out by religious, security and tribal leaders across Egyptian villages.
A 2015 study by EIPR tracked 45 sectarian incidents settled through this process, raising questions on the ways in which customary reconciliation councils assume their power and highlighting a pervasive favoring of the more socially empowered stakeholder.
While Thabet’s case did make it to court, it was immediately roadblocked.
In January 2017, according to Ramzy, the prosecution ignored the testimony of Thabet and her husband, as well as the results of the police investigations that confirmed the incident, and decided to close the case, claiming a lack of evidence after one neighbor retracted her testimony.
“A neighbor, named Enayat, had testified that Thabet was in fact stripped naked and that she took her into her home and gave her some clothes, since Thabet’s clothes had been torn during the assault. But this woman later recanted her testimony after facing pressure. The prosecution deemed this a conflict in testimonies that necessitated the closure of the case,” Ramzy said.
However, Thabet’s legal team appealed the prosecution’s decision before the Criminal Court, which reopened the case.
In January 2020, the Minya Criminal Court issued a 10-year prison sentence in absentia for the three defendants: Ishaq Ahmed Abdel Hafez, and his two sons, Nazeer and Abdel Moneim.
But in December of the same year, after the defendants were arrested, another circuit of the same court overturned the verdict and later acquitted all three.
Both the Public Prosecution and Thabet’s legal team decided in January 2021 to challenge the acquittal.
But on January 9, 2023, the Court of Cassation ruled to accept the two appeals in form and rejected them in substance, effectively upholding the decision to acquit the defendants.
Now, Thabet herself may face reprisals for her pursuit of justice. Ramzy said that the defendants filed a civil compensation suit against Thabet in September, ahead of the cassation court ruling and, citing their initial acquittal.
The decision in the civil suit, which was postponed pending the final verdict, may now come out in the three defendants’ favor, even though the cassation court ruling does not mean the incident did not happen — only that the court has determined that the evidence and testimonies presented by Thabet and witnesses are inconclusive.
EIPR has previously warned of the repercussions of not convicting those involved in sectarian attacks, saying it encourages religion-based discrimination and the recurrence of such attacks, shows leniency toward the assault of women and fosters the sense of there being an absence of the rule of law in the country.
*Writing by Ahmed Bakr