Egyptian prosecutor’s office has issued arrest warrants for seven Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Florida-based American pastor for their alleged role in an anti-Islam video that has sparked deadly riots across the Muslim world.
The warrants were released on Tuesday, referring the defendants to trial on charges linked to the film entitled “Innocence of Muslims” which portrays the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud, womaniser and buffoon.
Riots triggered by the video resulted in the deaths last week of the US ambassador to Libya and three of his colleagues. The four men were attacked in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, where an armed rebellion that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi last year started.
More protests against the video have been held in Arab and Muslim countries – including Afghanistan, Yemen and Indonesia – with demonstrators calling on the US to punish the people behind the video.
The case is largely symbolic since the seven men and one woman are believed to be outside of Egypt and unlikely to travel to the country to face the charges. The decision to take legal action appears aimed at placating some of the public anger over the amateur film whose trailer has attracted tens of millions of views on YouTube.
Among those charged is Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Copt living in southern California and believed to be behind the film. Others include Florida-based Pastor Terry Jones, who has said he was contacted by the filmmaker to promote the video and Morris Sadek, a conservative Coptic Christian in the US who pushed the video on his website.
The connection of the other five accused in the case to the film was not immediately clear. Nakoula, 55, told the AP news agency in an interview last week outside Los Angeles that he was the manager of the company that produced “Innocence of Muslims”. Jones also told AP that he was contacted by Nakoula to promote the movie.
The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that the accused, who include the film’s alleged producer, face charges of harming national unity, insulting and publicly attacking Islam and spreading false information.
The office said they could face the death penalty, if convicted. No date for the trial has been set. Mamdouh Ismail, an ultraconservative Salafi lawyer, praised the prosecutor’s decision.
While recognising that the eight will be tried in absentia, Ismail said referring them to trial will help curb public anger. “Now these are legal measures instead of angry reactions, whose consequences are undetermined,” he said. “This would also set a deterrent for them and anyone else who may fall into this” offence.
The prosecutor’s statement, a copy of which was obtained by AP, said that after studying the film investigators have determined that it contains scenes offensive to Islam and state institutions. It also says they questioned 10 plaintiffs before issuing the charges.