Thousands march to mark killing of Egypt Copts

AP News
Posted: Oct 09, 2012 3:46 PM
Thousands march to mark killing of Egypt Copts

CAIRO (AP) — Several thousand Egyptians marched for miles through Cairo on Tuesday, marking the year anniversary of a military crackdown on Christian protesters that killed 26 people and demanding retribution against army leaders they hold responsible for the deaths.

Muslim clerics, Christian priests, activists and liberal former lawmakers joined the procession, filling large boulevards to memorialize the "Maspero massacre," referring to the name of the state TV building overlooking the Nile River where the violence took place a year ago.

The protest last year was led by hundreds of Christians angered over a string of attacks on churches and denouncing the military — which ruled the country at the time — for failing to protect them. Soldiers attacked the crowd, with military vehicles running over some protesters, while others were killed by gunshots. Almost all the dead were Christians.

It was some of the worst state-perpetrated and sectarian violence during the 17-months of military rule that followed the toppling of longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak. For many Egyptians, the scenes of bloodshed altered their views of the generals who had taken power, led by Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.

For many in Egypt's Coptic Christian minority, the violence marked a turning point, ending their faith that the state would protect them in the face of increasingly assertive Islamic hardliners. Christian worries have only grown since Islamist Mohammed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, came to power in late June, ending military rule.

On Tuesday evening, the crowd marched about six kilometers (four miles) to the TV building, retracing the route the march a year ago took. "The people want the execution of the field marshal," many chanted, referring to Tantawi. Others carried a banner reading, "Put them on trial," with pictures of Tantawi and other members of the military council he headed.

Tears and ululations were common along the long march, and young Muslim and Christian women held a vigil outside the TV building to remember those killed.

In a funeral-style procession, the crowd carried a replica of a sun boat — the curved boat that the ancient pharaohs would have buried with them to take them into the afterlife — with images of those killed in the crackdown. There was a large flag of Mina Daniel, a prominent young Christian activist who was among those who died. Others waved Egyptian flags with the Muslim crescent and Christian cross in a show of unity.

"The case won't die, and blood won't be forgotten no matter how much time passes," Mary Daniel, Mina's sister, told The Associated Press.

One marcher, Emile Saad, said the demonstration aimed to pressure the government to prosecute those responsible for the deaths. "We want retribution," said the 52-year-old Saad, who participated in the protest a year ago and recalled the bullets whizzing by him.

Outside the TV building, priests chanted songs to remember the dead and pray for Egypt to be saved. Reflecting their growing disappointment, and fear of an Islamist-ruled Egypt, they chanted with the crowd as a chorus: "Our free sons in the revolution humiliated the corrupt leader and turned him into a prisoner. But their brothers fooled them and stole the revolution from the squares. In the name of the law, they misled the people and chose a ruler for the millions. But the revolution continues and will continue to say no."

Former lawmaker Ziad el-Oleimi said the blood of those killed has "not dried yet." In a snub to Morsi, el-Oleimi said it was because of the many killed that Egypt got rid of Mubarak and elected a new president. He urged Morsi to live up to his promise to bring to trial all those responsible for the killing of Egyptians.

He said that Morsi "owes every martyr ... all those who died so that our country becomes free and democratic."

Addressing the crowd, el-Oleimi said: "You are the titan that scares every ruler. ...You are the titan that will bring anyone down if they don't bring justice for the martyrs."

An Egyptian rights group on Tuesday criticized the country's new leadership for failing to prosecute those behind the violence.

"A whole year later, the real perpetrators who gave the orders to commit these crimes haven't been brought to justice," the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said.

A military court convicted three soldiers of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced them to two years in prison, a punishment the group described as "flimsy." It said authorities shelved an investigation into the shooting of 11 other protesters.

The military had defended its actions during the protest, saying at one point that the crowd "instigated" the violence. One soldier was killed in the protest.

The crackdown marked a culmination of a series of sectarian attacks against Copts, during which Baghat said the military's security agents "either stood by passively or actively participated" in them.

The Oct. 9, 2011 rally began as a peaceful protest against attacks on churches, which escalated after the fall of Mubarak, but turned into a melee as soon as the protesters arrived near the state TV building. Military police fired shots in the air to disperse the crowd of thousands, attacking some with batons to turn them back.

Then armored vehicles wildly sped into the crowd, driving back and forth over more than a dozen of protesters, killing 15. Another 11 people died of gunshot wounds.

Tantawi and his chief deputy were both awarded Egypt's highest medal by Morsi recently, prompting criticism that they may be exempted from prosecution.

But an attempt is being made to bring them to trial. Lawyer Hani Ramsis said a complaint was filed Monday to the civilian prosecutor against Tantawi and other members of the military council over the deaths. Complaints also were filed against state TV officials for incitement against Copts, he said. During the violence, aired live, at least one state TV broadcaster called for Egyptians to help because Christians were attacking soldiers.

Ramsis said prosecuting the generals may be easier now that they are no longer ruling the country.

"They (the generals) are now regular civilians," Ramsis said. "Before, the military used to try its own people. And how can that be if they are party to the case?"

At the rally, 32-year old Sama Kamal, said she was skeptical Morsi would bring the generals to trial but that public pressure will continue.

"We are just making our loud voice heard," she said. "We are letting him know we remember our martyrs and we will make sure they get retribution."