An Egyptian court today sentenced 14 militant Islamists to death by hanging and four to life imprisonment for attacks on army and police forces in the Sinai Peninsula last year.
The verdicts showed the state’s determination to deal firmly with militant activity in Sinai, which has increased since the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011. Security forces are mounting operations in the area following the killing 16 Egyptian border guards in August.
The court’s decision is likely to go in the way of appeasing Israel, which has voiced concern over the faltering security in Sinai where at least four cross-border attacks took place in just over a year. Israel is now building a fence along the desert border.
Restoring security in Sinai is one of President Mohamed Mursi’s main challenges since he became president last June.
The men, members of a militant group called Tawheed and Jihad, were charged by the prosecutor with killing three police officers, an army officer and a civilian in attacks carried out in June and July, 2011.
Eight of the 14 death sentences were in absentia, court sources said.
“This court decision is a milestone. It gives a strong message to the militant groups that the state, President Mohamed Mursi’s government, will not tolerate attacks on the Egyptian armed forces and police,” said Nageh Ibrahim, an Islamist researcher and a former militant.
The verdicts were met with cries from the accused against President Mohamed Mursi, the Islamist head of state elected this year and who the defendants blamed for the court’s decision.
“Mursi is an infidel and those who follow him are infidels,” shouted one defendant.
Others cried “God is Great” as they listened to the judge from inside the metal cage in which they stood during trial sessions.
The bearded men in the cage wore traditional white robes and some were seen holding the Koran, Islam’s holy book. They were accused of opening fire on a police station and a bank in the city of Arish in North Sinai.
The prosecutor said that Tawheed and Jihad group was propagating a hardline Islamist view which allows adherents to declare the head of state an infidel and to carry arms against the government.
The same group was accused of carrying out a series of bomb attacks in 2004 and 2005 against tourist resorts in South Sinai, which lead to the deaths of 34 people.
Egypt’s Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, the highest Islamic legal official, said in a statement the accused deserved the death sentenced. As the Grand Mufti, Gomaa sanctioned the death penalty before it was carried out.
“The accused wanted to spread corruption in the earth. They went out armed with deadly weapons, machine guns and explosives to target security forces … all in the name of Islam. They therefore deserve the death sentence,” Gomaa said.
Egypt and Israel have said they are coordinating on the security operation in Sinai in which hundreds of Egyptian troops with tanks, armoured vehicles and helicopters were sent in a joint operation with police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects and seize weapons.
Ibrahim, who was jailed during the 1990s but later became one of the leading Islamists to call for an end to violence against the state, said the verdicts will deter other militants from attacking their neighbour Israel.
“Mursi’s government is adamant about stemming any attacks across the border because this will give Israel an incentive to reoccupy Sinai. Now is the time for development not war,”Ibrahim said.
The U.S.-brokered 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel sets strict limits on military deployment in the Sinai, which is designated as a demilitarized buffer zone.