Egyptian court sentences priest's murderer to death

The ruling is subject to approval by the grand mufti, normally a formality in Egypt

Coptic Christians make up about 10 to 15 per cent of Egypt's mainly Muslim population of more than 100 million. AFP
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An Egyptian court on Wednesday sentenced to death a man found guilty of murdering a Coptic Christian priest in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria last month.

The Alexandria criminal court convicted Nehru Tawfiq, 60, of the murder of Father Arsanios Wadid, 56.

Wadid died of his wounds in hospital after being stabbed on Alexandria's seafront promenade as he accompanied a group of young parishioners.

The court's ruling is subject to approval by the mufti, which is normally a formality in Egypt.

During the attack on April 7, the assailant was grabbed by passers-by and handed to police, who held him in a psychiatric hospital because of doubts over his mental health.

Wednesday's conviction was reached in only the second hearing of the case.

The first hearing was held on Saturday, when the court heard witnesses for the prosecution and testimony by two police officers who said the crime was an isolated incident and did not appear to be premeditated.

The prosecution on Wednesday rejected that and insisted the case be treated as premeditated murder, which is punishable by hanging.

The court referred the case to Grand Mufi Shawky Allam, Egypt’s top Muslim theologian, for review – a routine procedure required in cases of capital punishment. The mufti’s opinion on such cases is not binding.

"The court decided to refer the case of Nehru Abdel Monaim Tawfiq to his eminence the Mufti to solicit his Sharia-based view on executing him," presiding judge Waheed Sabry said at the end of Sunday's hearing.

The verdict is due June 11. It can be appealed before a higher court.

'Extremist background'

At the time of the killing, regional media reports said Tawfiq was a member of an extremist group in the 1990s and jailed for his involvement in terror attacks.

He later received a presidential pardon and was released.

The public prosecution has said a psychological examination showed Tawfiq did not suffer from any mental illness and was fully aware of, and responsible for, his actions at the time of the crime.

He has also been charged of the illegal possession of a weapon, a reference to the knife used in the attack, the prosecution said in April.

Footage taken from security cameras and purporting to show the incident was screened at the start of Wednesday's hearing.

The prosecution said Tawfiq "followed the devil's path" when he joined the extremist Gamaa Islamiyah group, which surfaced in the 1980s and was a key player in an anti-government insurgency in the 1990s that included assassinations and attacks against tourists and security forces.

He appeared in the docks, which in Egyptian courtrooms are in a caged-off section.

"By God, these are lies … I am not an extremist," Tawfiq yelled from the cage, interrupting the prosecution.

He also declined to co-operate with court-appointed defence lawyers, insisting that he wanted to represent himself. His request was denied by the court.

Sectarian violence

Sectarian violence is not uncommon in Egypt.

Extremists have targeted Christians in recent years, especially after the 2013 removal of president Mohammed Morsi of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood.

Morsi was removed amid mass street protests against his divisive, one-year rule.

In September 2017, an ISIS supporter stabbed to death an 82-year-old Christian doctor in Cairo. He was sentenced to death the following year.

There have also been suicide attacks in recent years against churches in Cairo, Alexandria and a city in the Nile Delta north of the capital.

Pilgrims travelling to isolated desert monasteries west and south-west of Cairo have also been targets.

Coptic Christians, the largest non-Muslim religious minority in the Middle East, make up about 10 to 15 per cent of Egypt's mainly Sunni Muslim population of more than 100 million.

The community has long complained of discrimination and under-representation.

But in February, Egypt for the first time swore in a Coptic judge to lead its constitutional court.

Updated: May 18, 2022, 7:45 PM