A local court in Egypt has reportedly sentenced 12 Coptic Christians to life and acquitted eight Muslims involved in clashes last year that left two people dead.
The ruling, reported Monday by The Associated Press, found that the Christians were guilty of "sowing public strife" and killing two men in the April 2011 case that began with a Muslim bus driver's confrontation with security guards outside the home of a rich Coptic in the country's Minya province.
The bus driver had apparently complained about a speed bump outside the home and was allegedly beaten by the security guards. The man, unnamed by the AP, returned to his village and gathered supporters to accompany him to complain about the alleged beating at the offices of an ultraconservative Islamist group.
Rights researcher Ishak Ibrahim said the Christians nearby thought they were being targeted and shot from their rooftops into the crowd, killing two men and wounding two others, the AP reported.
Over a period of several days, religious tensions erupted when Muslims furious over the killings sought revenge by burning down Christian homes and stores.
The eight Muslims eventually acquitted in the case had been charged with possession of illegal weapons and burning down the homes and stores.
"The fact that the Muslims were acquitted means that the attorney general's investigation from the beginning was faulty and unfair because there was evidence to prove these men had burned Christian property," Ibrahim said to the AP.
The court's decision cannot be appealed, but Egypt's military council has the authority to request a retrial.
The case exemplifies the complaint from Coptics, who make up about 9 per cent of Egypt's population, that the authorities tend to favour Muslims and fail to take cases concerning Christians seriously. Muslims, mostly Sunni, are about 90 per cent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook.
According to Kurt Werthmuller, research fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at Hudson Institute, "legal proceedings can be very arbitrary" when Coptic Christians are involved.
"Somebody can attack and even kill a Copt, and there's no legal accountability for it," said Werthmuller, who spoke with The Christian Post about the country's first democratic presidential elections. "It is illegal in Egypt to kill someone. But in case of Copts, these cases are allowed to slip through the cracks."
Fearing that their situation could grow even worse, Coptics reportedly have been focusing on two mostly moderate candidates as they head to the polls to elect ousted President Hosni Mubarak's replacement.
The apparent favorites among Coptic Christians are Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq, whom experts say would be more likely to protect the rights of religious minorities. Both Moussa and Shafiq worked under Mubarak, and are facing about a dozen other candidates, many of them conservative Muslims.
Egypt's Christians, according to Werthmuller, are looking to their next president to ensure them equal protection under the law as well as protection from mob violence often carried out by extremists.