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Africa - Sectarian Violence

One year on, no answers to Egypt church bombing
Aya Batrawy (AP, January 5, 2012)

Cairo, Egypt - Just over a year ago, Amira Maurice was attending a New Year's Eve Mass in the Saints Church in Egypt's Mediterranean coastal city of Alexandria with her parents and fiance, their marriage set for only a few months away. Then the bomb blast ripped through the church.

Now, the 28-year-old pharmacist is in Germany undergoing the latest in a string of surgeries to save her leg and deal with her burns. Her fiance is dead, one of the 21 people killed in the suicide bombing targeting the church.

Another New Year's has passed since, and there are still no answers in Egypt's most dramatic anti-Christian attack. The investigation was halted 11 months ago and never picked up again. The only suspects ever detained were released, and it's not clear they had any role in it. No new suspects have ever been named.

"Nothing. Nothing at all has happened with the investigation," said Maurice's father, Nabil Roman. "It is ridiculous."

Roman suspects that the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, is dragging its feet in going after the case, but he doesn't know why.

"Something is not clear. All I can say is that God will deal with them," Roman said.

The attack was soon overshadowed by the massive popular uprising against Hosni Mubarak that began soon after and that eventually led to his Feb. 11 ouster. But the failure to answer who was behind the blast has fueled resentment among Egypt's Christian minority that the state does little to protect them. This sentiment has bred numerous conspiracy theories.

The failure highlights the deep problems that ailed Egypt's police forces during Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule and only worsened after his fall.

Police were notorious for doing little investigation of crimes — instead, their modus operandi was usually to detain possible suspects and torture them into confessions, rights groups and former police officials say. After the fall of Mubarak's regime, the police have been in disarray and resisting reform in their ranks.

An Interior Ministry official told The Associated Press that the delay in investigating the church bombing is because of the turmoil after Mubarak's ouster and the inability of police to arrest and interrogate people like before. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case.

Egypt's feared security forces long had near unlimited power to arrest people under emergency laws. The laws are still in place, but police have become more hesitant to use them in some cases for fear of eventual retribution.

Joseph Malak, the chief lawyer for families who lost relatives in the attack, said he's been pressing the chief prosecutor's office for months to proceed with an investigation, but prosecutors are legally bound to wait for the Interior Ministry to hand over its initial findings, which it never has. This, he says, has left the case in limbo.

He said he does not know why the case is still with the police.

Prominent human rights activist Hossam Bahgat said the Interior Ministry "has been and remains broken."

"It is not just abuse and corruption, but also inefficiency," said Bahgat, head of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. Under Mubarak, police had more of a role in monitoring opponents and preserving the regime than investigating crime, and that "had a detrimental effect," he said.

He pointed out that no suspects were ever tried in two of Egypt's previous most prominent terror attacks — suicide bombings in two Sinai resorts, Sharm el-Sheikh in 2005 and Dahab in 2006. In the 2004 bombing of another resort, Taba, three men were sentenced to death, but Bahgat said it was "abundantly clear" they had confessed under torture.

The investigation into the church bombing appears to have been marred by the same methods. One man detained over the attack died in custody after witnesses said he was tortured. Police say his death is being investigated.

Police arrested around 40 men in the wake of the Saints Church bombing, all of whom had been previously detained in 2006 for alleged ties to militants in Iraq, though none were charged at the time and none were subsequently charged in the church bombing. Most belonged to the ultraconservative Islamic Salafi movement.

The men were all released in April when the military, which took power after Mubarak's fall, released political prisoners.

Several of those detained told AP they were tortured during detention, saying they were doused in gasoline, given electric shocks and beaten repeatedly, including on their genitals.

"We were arrested for being arrested before. We had done nothing wrong, but that never mattered under Mubarak," said one of the former suspects, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation has not been formally closed.

He said he was among those tortured, and he denied any of those detained was involved in the attack. "We want this case solved more than anyone because it's our right to know who did this and who tried to blame us for it," he said.

Ahmed Amin, a lawyer who was detained in connection with the attack, said the police told the detainees to fabricate scenarios of how the attack was planned. "The officers interrogating us told us we either accept this case nicely or they will force it on us," he told the AP.

In the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Mubarak blamed foreign terrorists and Alexandria's governor accused al-Qaida, pointing to threats against Christians by the terror network's branch in Iraq. Officials then said a Palestinian militant group based in the Gaza Strip, the Army of Islam, was behind the attack, though they also said they were looking at possible involvement by Egyptian extremists inspired by al-Qaida.

Last weekend, several hundred protesters — most of them Coptic Christians — held a vigil outside Cairo's main courthouse to remember the victims of the attack. Some held posters demanding the resignation of the attorney general and others demanded Habib el-Adly, the interior minister at the time, be investigated as a suspect.

After Mubarak's fall, some speculated that el-Adly organized the bombing to bolster Mubarak's claims that he was needed to keep stability. No evidence has ever been put forward, and the rights activist Bahgat said the scenario was unlikely.

Roman is among those who suspects el-Adly had a role and he feels justice has been served, in its own way, with the ongoing trial of Mubarak and el-Adly on charges of complicity in the killing of over 800 protesters in last year's revolt.

"God got us our justice and more when the revolt happened on Jan. 25 and all these men went to jail," he said. "God stood with us."


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