CAIRO – An Egyptian court sentenced 12 Christians to life in prison and acquitted eight Muslims on Monday in a case set off by religious tensions in the country's south.
The Christians were found guilty of sowing public strife, the possession of illegal weapons and shooting dead two Muslims in April of last year in Minya province, about 220 kilometers (135 miles) south of Cairo.
The religious tension in Minya spilled over into violence last year when a Muslim microbus driver, angered by a speed bump outside a wealthy Christian man's villa, got into a scuffle with security guards who beat him.
After returning to his village of Abu Qurqas that evening, he rounded up the villagers who then gathered outside an ultraconservative Islamist group's main office there to protest his beating. According to rights researcher Ishak Ibrahim, the Christians nearby thought they were going to be attacked and shot from their rooftops down at the crowd, killing two and wounding two others.
For several days after, angry villagers torched dozens of Christian homes and stores.
The eight Muslims on trial in the same case had been charged with possession of illegal weapons and burning down the Christian-owned homes and stores after the shooting.
"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.
The State Security Court, whose rulings cannot be appealed, handed down its sentence on Monday. The ruling military council is the only entity with the power to request a retrial.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Egypt's estimated 80 million people, complain that the courts and police often turn a blind eye to discrimination or violence against them. Some fear the surge of ultraconservative Islamists to power after Hosni Mubarak's overthrow last year could further curtail their rights.