CAIRO – Egypt's general prosecutor issued arrest warrants Tuesday for seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor and referred them to trial on charges linked to an anti-Islam film that has sparked riots across the Muslim world.
The case is largely symbolic since the seven men and one woman are believed to be outside of Egypt and unlikely to travel to the country to face the charges. Instead, the prosecutor's decision to take legal appears aimed at absorbing at least some of the public anger over the amateur film, which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womanizer and buffoon.
The prosecutor's office said in a statement that the accused, which includes the film's alleged producer, face charges of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information. The office said they could face the death penalty, if convicted. No date for the trial has been set.
Among those charged is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Copt living in southern California and believed to be behind the film. Florida-based Pastor Terry Jones, who has said he was contacted by the filmmaker to promote the video, as well as Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the U.S. who pushed the video on his website, are also among those charged.
The connection of the other five accused in the case to the film was not immediately clear.
Ultraconservative Salafi lawyer Mamdouh Ismail praised the prosecutor's decision. While recognizing that the eight will be tried in absentia, Ismail said referring them to trial will help curb public anger.
"Now these are legal measures instead of angry reactions, whose consequences are undetermined," he said. "This would also set a deterrent for them and anyone else who may fall into this" offense.
The prosecutor's statement, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press, said that after studying the film investigators have determined that it contains scenes offensive to Islam and state institutions. It also says they questioned 10 plaintiffs before issuing the charges.
Nakoula, 55, told the AP in an interview last week outside Los Angeles that he was the manager of the company that produced "Innocence of Muslims." Jones also told AP that he was contacted by Nakoula to promote the movie.
The film, clips of it appeared on YouTube, mocked the Prophet Muhammad and drove small but angry crowds to protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and an attack on the American Consulate in Libya that killed the U.S. ambassador. Other protests have erupted across the Muslim world over the video, including Afghanistan, Yemen and Indonesia.