An Egyptian court on Tuesday upheld the in absentia death sentences of seven Coptic Christians and an American preacher on charges stemming from the amateur anti-Muslim film Innocence of Muslims [BBC backgrounder], which sparked violent protests in the Middle East last year. A criminal court in Cairo sentenced [JURIST report] the convicted defendants in November, pending the final verdict just announced [Bloomberg report]. The death sentences are primarily symbolic, as all of the defendants live outside of Egypt. The eight defendants include Mark Basseley Youssef, the California man who produced the film, as well as Florida pastor Terry Jones [JURIST news archive], who aroused controversy last year by publicly burning a Koran. The film depicts the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud and a womanizer. The court found the defendants guilty of subverting national unity, spreading false information and insulting Islam, charges that carry the death penalty in Egypt.
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.