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Coptic Christian killing suspects plead not guilty
Three Egyptians charged with shooting six Coptic Christians outside a church in southern Egypt last month pleaded not guilty at the start of their trial on Saturday. (Photograph shows site of the killing in the village of Nagaa Hammadi).
AFP - Three Egyptian Muslims accused of gunning down six Coptic Christians in southern Egypt last month pleaded not guilty on Saturday at the start of their trial amid heavy security.
A Muslim policeman was also killed when three gunmen raked worshippers emerging from services with bullets on the eve of the Coptic Orthodox Christmas on January 6 in the village of Nagaa Hammadi.
It was the deadliest attack since 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian clashes.
The hearing in an emergency security court in the city of Qena, capital of the Qena governorate where Nagaa Hammadi is located, was packed with journalists, lawyers and police, an AFP correspondent said.
The defendants -- Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed -- pleaded "not guilty" as the judge read out the charges against them.
The hearing took place in a tense courtroom, with arguments breaking out as people tried to force their way in. The brother and father of Sayyed left under security escort.
Judge Mohammed Abul Magd adjourned the trial to March 20 after the defence requested more time to study the case.
The suspects were arrested after the attack and a Qena prosecutor charged them with "premeditated murder, putting the life of citizens in danger and damage to public and private property," a judicial source has said.
The killings sparked outrage among the country's Copts and led to clashes with police as Nagaa Hammadi residents accused the authorities of refusing to recognise the attack as sectarian.
International condemnation also poured in after the attack, with the United States saying the incident showed "an atmosphere of intolerance" in Egypt and Pope Benedict XVI saying it has "caused indignation among many people."
Egyptian officials have denied a sectarian element in the attack, insisting it is a purely criminal act and have linked it to the alleged rape of a Muslim girl by a Coptic man in November.
But the arrests have not assuaged residents of Nagaa Hammadi who believe the main suspect carried out the attack for others, who have not been arrested.
The trial in a security court, which allows no right of appeal, is unprecedented for such a crime, but authorities have still been criticised for not dealing with questions such as the police's failure to prevent the attack.
Bishop Kirolos of Nagaa Hammadi reported death threats weeks before the attack and said he had cut the service short on the fatal night because of the threats.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said "this trial will reveal perhaps who pressed the trigger and will punish him, but will leave many questions unanswered, in particular the failure of security forces to anticipate and prevent this crime."
Copts, who account for nearly 10 percent of Egypt's population of 80 million, are the Middle East's largest Christian community but complain of routine harassment and systematic discrimination and marginalisation.