An Egyptian court convicted in absentia Wednesday seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor, sentencing them to death on charges linked to an anti-Islam film that had sparked riots in parts of the Muslim world.
The case was seen as largely symbolic because the defendants, most of whom live in the United States, are all outside Egypt and thus are unlikely ever to face the sentence. The charges were brought in September during a wave of public outrage in Egypt over the amateur film, which was produced by an Egyptian-American Copt.
The low-budget “Innocence of Muslims,” parts of which were made available online, portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womanizer and buffoon.
Egypt’s official news agency said the court found the defendants guilty of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information — charges that carry the death sentence.
Maximum sentences are common in cases tried in absentia in Egypt. Capital- punishment decisions are reviewed by the country’s chief religious authority, who must approve or reject the sentence. A final verdict is scheduled Jan. 29.
The man behind the film, Mark Basseley Youssef, was among those convicted. He was sentenced in a California court earlier this month to one year in federal prison for probation violations in an unrelated matter. Youssef, 55, admitted that he had used several false names in violation of his probation order and obtained a driver’s license under a false name. He was on probation for a bank- fraud case.
Multiple calls to Youssef’s attorney in Southern California, Steve Seiden, were not returned Wednesday.
Florida-based Terry Jones, another of those sentenced, is the pastor of Dove World Outreach, a church of fewer than 50 members in Gainesville, Fla., not far from the University of Florida. He has said he was contacted by the filmmaker to promote the film, as well as Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the U.S. who posted the video clips on his website.
In a telephone interview Wednesday, Jones said the ruling “shows the true face of Islam” — one that he views as intolerant of dissent and opposed to basic freedoms of speech and religion.
In a statement sent to The Associated Press on Wednesday, Sadek, who fled Egypt 10 years ago and is now a Coptic activist living in Chantilly, Va., denied any role in the creation, production or financing of the film.