Samalut's Sectarian Violence: Fighting Impunity is the Only Way to Reconciliation

Press Release

8 October 2008

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) today released the preliminary findings of its inquiry into the sectarian violence that took place in the village of Al-Tayeba, located in the Samalut district of Al-Minya Governorate, on Friday, 3 October. The violence left one dead and four injured and involved arson and the destruction of homes, land and property.

The EIPR called on the Public Prosecutor to ensure an independent investigation into the events and to bring perpetrators to justice regardless of any political implications. The organization also urged officials and Church leaders to give due consideration to the rights of the victims and guarantee perpetrators do not escape punishment under the guise of reconciliation.

“The testimonies we have collected indicate that the violence may return with even more force and lead to further bloodshed,” said Hossam Bahgat, the director of EIPR. “If the government is truly serious about preventing this, it must bring the perpetrators to justice without delay and refrain from its usual practice of pressuring victims to renounce their rights in order to close the case.”

Information collected by EIPR researchers indicates that the events began at about 10 pm on Friday when a fight erupted between a Muslim and a Christian in the Christian-majority village. Different reasons have been given for the fight that later sparked the sectarian violence. Preliminary inquiries carried out by the EIPR indicate that the dispute likely began when a Muslim youth harassed a young Christian woman and her brother stepped in to defend her, an incident that quickly took on sectarian dimensions involving the larger Coptic and Muslim community.  The police and the prosecutor’s office have corroborated that a Coptic woman was subject to harassment by a Muslim youth. This incident, however, took place against the backdrop of pre-existing sectarian tensions in the village provoked by a Coptic man’s intention to sell his home to a Muslim in a predominantly Coptic area, which caused an angry response among his neighbors.

As the sectarian tension escalated, several Muslims stormed the house of the Christian man whose sister was harassed.  This house is attached to a carpentry workshop and a shed for storing wood, both of which were ransacked and most of its belongings torched and destroyed. Following this attack, many Copts assembled and headed toward the scene of the fight, in the eastern part of the village, whereupon Muslims began shooting at them indiscriminately to break them up. At this point, Copts—who eyewitnesses say were unarmed—began throwing stones at Muslim homes. A police source told the EIPR that there was no evidence that Copts had used firearms during the events.

Coptic eyewitnesses said they called security agencies, who deployed forces to the village. However, security vehicles were only able to reach the scene of the clashes two hours later because of heavy gunfire. As soon as security forces did reach the scene, they threw tear gas grenades in an effort to disperse the Copts assembled there. One witness said that a police officer began beating those gathered with a club to disperse them and force them back into their homes, prompting Coptic youth to flee the tear gas and police by heading to the western part of the village, where several Muslims reside. According to statements collected by EIPR researchers, some Coptic youths, motivated by revenge, attempted to break into the home of a village Muslim, leading a neighbor to open fire indiscriminately, killing Yeshua Gamal Nashed, who was shot in the face and died shortly thereafter.

Men injured in the assaults were taken to the Samalut General Hospital, located 12 km from Al-Tayeba. Medical sources at the hospital told the EIPR that Yeshua Gamal, 25, reached the hospital in critical condition and died approximately 15 minutes later as a result of a gunshot wound in the forehead. The hospital also admitted three Copts from the village—Michael Samuel, Philip Ramzi, and Ibram Musa—injured by BB pellets likely shot by Muslims, which can result in deep tearing wounds when fired at close range.

They were released from the hospital after treatment. The fourth wounded man, Mahmoud Subhi, was admitted to the Samalut Hospital with head injuries, a result of being hit with a club during the violence, and was transferred to the Minya University Hospital. Sources in the Minya hospital’s surgery ward said that X-rays revealed multiple skull fractures. Subhi was treated and released after being observed for a day at the hospital.

Security forces prohibited funeral prayers for Yeshua Gamal at the village church, moving the service to the Orthodox Coptic Archbishopric in Samalut. Gamal’s body was taken in an ambulance to the Coptic cemetery on the outskirts of Al-Tayeba accompanied by heavy security.

According to village residents, after the events, the police arbitrararily arrested several Muslim and Coptic youths. The Muslim detainees were taken to the Samalut police station while the Christians were taken to the Matay police station, located 25 km from Al-Tayeba. According to statements from lawyers who visited both groups of detainees, at least 40 people were arrested, but an informed judicial source in the Samalut prosecutor’s office said that no more than 15 Muslims and Copts had been detained pending investigation.

The EIPR warned that this discrepancy raises concerns that several men were detained unlawfully in both Matay and Samalut. The judicial source added that on 7 October an order had been issued to renew the preventive detention of all suspects for 15 days on charges of attempted murder, arson, and property destruction. One lawyer, who asked not to be named, said that the detainees in the Matay station had been beaten by police on their first night in the station.

Security sources announced that they had arrested Gamal Selim Abd al-Hakim (known as Gamal Rustum), accused of murdering Yeshua Gamal by relatives of the deceased. The prosecutor ordered his detention 15 days pending investigation. The EIPR was also informed that security forces detained the suspect’s father and two brothers who are still in detention.

The EIPR received reports of a continuing increase in sectarian tensions as Coptic-owned land was torched and destroyedin the village of Al-Tayeba on Sunday night, 5 October. These attacks reportedly destroyed sesame and maize crops as well as huts set up on the land. Both Copts and Muslims in the village said they feared renewed violence due to the high level of tension in the village, particularly given the wide availability of firearms on both sides. These sources said that security forces are conducting patrols in the village streets and the agricultural land around the village, particularly at night, to ward off more violence.