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Prosecution suspends investigations into assault of Coptic woman in Minya

Minya prosecution suspended investigations into a case connected to the assault of Soad Thabet, an elderly coptic woman, on Saturday. The prosecution said that the case was closed due to insufficient evidence.

Ihab Ramzy, the lawyer representing Thabet, told Mada Masr that the prosecution neglected her testimony, that of her husband and police investigations which proved that the woman was stripped naked and dragged through the streets of Karm village last May during a bout of sectarian violence.

According to Ramzy, “a neighbor of Thabet, named Enayat, had testified earlier that she saw Thabet stripped naked and assaulted, then hosted her in her house and gave her clothes and shelter. The woman later recanted her testimony due to external pressure, which the prosecution considered a contradiction in the evidence, deeming the case now insufficient for referral to court.”

The lawyer added that the prosecution did not investigate why the witness recanted her testimony, or whether she was under pressure to retract what she said. He added that the task of evaluating of evidence falls to the court, not the prosecution, making Saturday’s decision “unprecedented.”

Sectarian violence broke out in Karm village last May when a rumor circulated about a romantic relationship between Thabet’s son and a divorced Muslim woman in the village. According to a statement issued by the Minya archbishopric, the rumor prompted the woman’s divorcee to attack Thabet’s family and the houses of other Coptic residents in the village. Thabet was subsequently assaulted, dragged through the street and stripped naked while Coptic houses were looted and burned.

The case raised controversy and received extensive media coverage, prompting President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to issue a public apology to Thabet and pledge to find the perpetrators. Ramzy, however, believes that the course of the prosecution’s investigations contradicts these presidential promises.

The divorcee of the woman rumored to be in a relationship with Thabet’s son, who was the first defendant in the case, also filed a lawsuit against his wife accusing her of committing adultery, an accusation penalized under Egypt’s Criminal Code. The prosecution referred the case to the Abou Qourqas Misdemeanour Court, adjourning the hearing until January 17.

According to Ramzy, “the prosecution relied on rumors of a love affair between the Muslim woman and a Coptic man as the base for all the sectarian violence, ignoring all evidence concerning Thabet’s assault.”

He considers Sisi’s apology to be strong evidence in Thabet’s case, asking, “did the security apparatus provide the president with wrong information? Did they lie to him? Can’t we see his apology as a concrete evidence of what happened to this elderly woman?”

The prosecution decided to separate Thabet’s assault case from that pertaining to the rest of attacks against the Coptic community in the village, according to the lawyer. The latter was referred to a criminal court in October, however no session has been scheduled.

The Minya Misdemeanor Court ordered the release of 16 defendants involved in the case, pending investigations, in July last year. In an earlier interview with Mada Masr, Ramzy called this a direct threat to the victims who face pressure to change their testimony. He asserted that the verdict follows “pressure from local village leaders and parliamentarians on the victims to change their testimonies and force them into reconciliation,” adding that the release of the defendants is “terrorizing” for all involved.

Customary reconciliation sessions are a policy often adopted by authorities to deal with sectarian violence in Egypt. After the Karm incident, the Coptic Orthodox Church was adamant about rejecting these sessions, calling for swift application of the law.

A 2015 study by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) documenting sectarian violence shows that these sessions, often spearheaded by the state’s security apparatus, usually lead to violations of the rights of citizens. Bishop Makaryous of the Minya Archbishopric has heavily criticized Al-Azhar and state institutions for resorting to such methods.

Although Ramzy called the prosecution’s decision “unprecedented,” researcher of religious freedoms at EIPR Ishaq Ibrahim said that it reflects a routine pattern prevalent in all cases related to sectarian violence against Copts.

He asserted that “the prosecution usually closes such cases, or simply freezes them.”

According to Ibrahim, “if we look at the 2011 attacks against Etfeeh village in Giza, the victims showed videos of the attacks and the perpetrators attacking the church, as well as testimonies of eyewitnesses, but the prosecution did not refer the case to court until now.”

He adds that it is difficult to understand the rationale behind the prosecution’s approach to cases involving  serious levels of violence against Copts, stating: “Maybe the prosecution believes this is how best to stabilize the situation, by resorting to customary arbitration.”

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