An Egyptian court on Wednesday sentenced in absentia seven Coptic Christians and an American preacher to death on charges stemming from an anti-Muslim film, Innocence of Muslims [BBC backgrounder], which sparked violent protests in the Middle East earlier this year. The death sentences are primarily symbolic, as all of the defendants live outside of Egypt and are thus not likely to face the sentence. The eight defendants included [AP report] Mark Basseley Youssef, the California man behind the film, as well as Florida pastor Terry Jones [JURIST news archive], who aroused controversy last year by publicly burning a Koran. The amateur film depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud and a womanizer. The court found the defendants guilty [Al Jazeera report] of subverting national unity, spreading false information and insulting Islam, charges that carry the death penalty in Egypt. A final verdict is scheduled for January 29.
Innocence of Muslims has generated a great deal of political, religious and legal controversy. In September an actress who claims she was duped into appearing in the film filed suit [JURIST report] in the US District Court for the Northern District of California [official website] requesting that the film be removed from YouTube. Earlier in September UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai [official website] condemned the violence [JURIST report] that erupted after the film's release. Kiai stated that protests and rallies must be peaceful to be protected by international human rights law and urged the Middle East states to prosecute those responsible for the violence. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] urged religious and political leaders [JURIST report] to encourage an end to the violence that followed the release of the film. While Pillay said she "fully understand[s] why people wish to protest strongly against" the film, she "utterly condemn[s]" the violence that has resulted from the protests. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton [official website] declared that the US had nothing to do with the anti-Muslim film [Reuters report] despite its apparent production in America, in turn labeling it disgusting and reprehensible.