The 'Headscarf Martyr': Trial of the Century for Muslims

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Ralf Hirschberger / Reuters

Defendant Alex W. is brought into a courtroom in Dresden on Oct. 26, 2009 on the second day of his trial for the stabbing of Marwa el-Sherbini

The killing of Marwa el-Sherbini provoked outrage among Muslims for its sheer brutality and brazenness. According to witnesses, the pregnant mother was stabbed to death in front of a courtroom full of people in Germany by a man with an apparently deep-seated hatred of Muslims. Thousands marched in Egypt, Iran and other Muslim countries against what they perceived as a disturbing rise of Islamophobia and racism in Germany as well as the scant attention the attack received in the German media.

Now, four months later, the trial of el-Sherbini's alleged killer is being closely watched by Muslims across the world — not to mention Germany's 4 million–strong Muslim community — amid fears that anything but a severe punishment for the defendant, an unemployed Russian émigré identified only as Alex W., could spark more unrest. In Egypt, where el-Sherbini has been dubbed by the media as the "headscarf martyr," people are expecting "justice to be administered in a swift way," Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy, Egypt's ambassador to Germany, told al-Jazeera.

The trial began on Oct. 26 in the same courthouse in Dresden where the killing took place. The 28-year-old defendant wore a cap, a dark blue hooded top and sunglasses to conceal his face as he was led into the courtroom, flanked by police officers, and seated behind a screen of bulletproof glass. Prosecutors then described how el-Sherbini, 31, was attacked. The pharmacist had appeared in court on July 1 to testify in a hearing against Alex W., who was appealing an earlier conviction for defaming el-Sherbini by calling her an "Islamist" and a "terrorist" on a playground. Prosecutors say that after el-Sherbini's testimony, Alex W. lunged at her with a 7-in. kitchen knife he had smuggled into court and stabbed her at least 16 times. Her husband, Elwy Okaz, 32, was also repeatedly stabbed before being shot by a police officer who mistook him for el-Sherbini's attacker. El-Sherbini, who was three months pregnant at the time, bled to death in front of the couple's 3-year-old son.

Okaz was back in court on Monday, walking with the help of crutches after having undergone two operations. "We wanted to leave the court, and then he attacked her," Okaz said in a calm voice, recalling the incident. "When I saw that he had a knife, I tried to get it off him. He continued stabbing my wife even when she was lying on the ground." Okaz said their son was meant to be in kindergarten on the day of the attack but was ill. "Marwa wanted to take him to the doctor after the hearing. The little boy misses her, and he's suffering a lot," Okaz testified.

Alex W., who emigrated from Russia in 2003 and was granted German citizenship because he had distant ethnic roots in the country, faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted of murder and attempted murder. Prosecutors say he was motivated by deep-rooted racism. "He stabbed [the couple] out of pure hatred against non-Europeans and Muslims. He wanted to kill them," prosecutor Frank Heinrich told the court Monday.

Surprisingly, the killing was scarcely reported in Germany, which caused massive embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel's government when the story made headlines across the Muslim world. Following the demonstrations in Egypt, Merkel expressed her condolences to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on the sidelines of the G-8 summit in Italy in July. Given the outcry over the earlier lack of publicity, Alex W.'s trial is now receiving extensive coverage in the country. German political leaders are also nervously watching the proceedings. "Politicians regarded the murder of Marwa el-Sherbini as a foreign policy issue, but it was really an internal matter," Ali Kizilkaya, head of the Islamic Council of Germany, tells TIME. "The case shows that a small part of German society is Islamophobic, and that shouldn't be underestimated. Politicians have to learn that Muslims must be recognized as an equal part of German society." He added, though, that he has faith in the German justice system and is confident that there will be a fair judgment in the case.

If not, some fear a possible repeat of the riots that swept the Muslim world following the publication of cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad several years ago in Denmark. After death threats against Alex W. were reportedly posted on the Internet, Dresden authorities imposed extra security measures for the duration of the trial. Roads around the courthouse have been closed off, and 200 police officers will stand guard until a verdict is reached, which is expected to be on Nov. 11. With tensions running high, German authorities aren't taking any chances this time.