CAIRO - An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced to death 37 defendants, including one of the country’s most high-profile militants, following their conviction of terrorism-related charges.
The Cairo Criminal Court said the defendants were charged with belonging to a local affiliate of the Islamic State group spearheading an insurgency in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Among those sentenced to death was Hisham el-Ashmawi. The militant leader is a former army officer and was captured in Libya late in 2018 by forces loyal to Libyan Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a close ally of Egypt. A military court separately sentenced el-Ashmawi to death in November for his participation in scores of attacks on government targets.
Egypt has been fighting for years militants in the restive northern Sinai area and the vast Western Desert.
The men are among more than 200 defendants accused of carrying out more than 50 militant attacks that included killing high-ranking police officers and bombings that targeted the Egyptian capital’s police headquarters. The charges include a 2013 assassination attempt on the Egyptian interior minister.
The court also sentenced 61 defendants to life in prison, and 85 others got sentences ranging from 15 to 5 years in prison.
Monday’s verdict can be appealed before a higher court.
For years, Egypt’s security forces considered el-Ashmawi the country’s most wanted militant for his intelligence value.
Egyptian authorities linked el-Ashmawi, who is in his 40s, to several major attacks, including devastating assaults on security forces near Egypt’s porous desert border with Libya.
Before he fled to Libya, el-Ashmawi helped found Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, a jihadi organization based in northern Sinai. His military expertise — he left the Egyptian army in 2011 — transformed the tiny group into a well-organized guerrilla band that later inflicted painful blows on security forces in Sinai.
Beit al-Maqdis swore allegiance to the extremist Islamic State group in November 2014 and is now known as “Welayet Sinai,” or the province of Sinai.
El-Ashmawi did not declare his allegiance to IS, which at that time was at the peak of its power and controlled about a third of both Iraq and Syria.
In an audio recording released in 2015 that is believed to be authentic, el-Ashmawi allied himself with the Islamic State group’s rival, al-Qaida, led by Egyptian militant Ayman al-Zawahri.
After fleeing to Libya, he tried to establish himself among Islamic militants and extremists in the country’s east. He created al-Mourabitoun, a militant group blamed for most of the attacks in Egypt’s remote Western Desert, such as a 2017 ambush that killed nearly 30 Christian pilgrims on their way to a monastery.
Despite government efforts for years to contain the insurgency in Sinai, it gained strength following the 2013 military overthrow of a freely elected but divisive Muslim Brotherhood president.
Since then, the government has granted police forces and courts sweeping powers in response to Islamic militant attacks. Egyptian authorities have held mass trials and sentenced hundreds of people to death.
Human rights observers have repeatedly criticized such mass sentencings in Egypt and called on authorities to ensure fair trials.