Four Coptic Christian teenagers who allegedly insulted the Muslim prophet Mohammed have been sentenced to five years in prison by an Egyptian court.
The New York Times reports that the teenagers were convicted in Minya, a province south of Cairo, where they had been accused of filming a 32-second video in which they mocked the Muslim mode of prayer, said their lawyer, Maher Naguib.
In the video, the students are shown pretending to pray and recite verses from the Quran, with one kneeling on the floor while others stand behind him, laughing. Later, one of them is seen making a sign with his thumb to indicate the beheading of the one who is kneeling.
The video was reportedly filmed by the student's' teacher to mock ISIS, the group that beheaded 21 Coptic Christians in Libya last year. The said teacher, who is also a Christian, was sentenced to three years in prison for insulting Islam in a separate trial.
Naquib told the news outlet that the teenagers had not intended to insult Islam, but merely to make fun of the numerous beheadings carried out by the extremist group.
"It is unbelievable. The judge didn't show any mercy. He handed down the maximum punishment,'' Naguib told Agence France Presse (AFP), according to Fox News.
Iman Girgis, a mother of one of the convicted students, 16-year-old Moller Atef, told the AP, "My son was sentenced to five years for laughing. Is that possible?" "What kind of justice is this?"
Coptic Christians are members of Egypt's ancient Christian church which traces its roots to the Apostle Mark, centuries before Islam entered the country. The group makes up about 10 percent of Egypt's 90 million people, and have for decades complained of discrimination.
The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms, an independent rights group, said ahead of the ruling there was a return "of using contempt of religion as accusations against writers and religious minorities".
Another rights group, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said that between 2011 and 2013, 42 defendants were tried in similar cases and of them 27 were convicted, the AP reports.
In 2014, a Coptic Christian teacher was jailed for six months after parents of her students accused her of sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of insulting Islam. A short time later, a Coptic Christian man was sentenced to six years for insulting Islam, after posting a picture of Prophet Mohammed on his Facebook page with an insulting comment.
Speaking to the AP, Naguib said he feared that the growing atmosphere of intolerance in the country could hurt his client's chances of a successful appeal.
"How can we be optimistic in a climate where everything is taken so sensitively?" he lamented.