Crime & Justice

Egypt court quizzes church attack defendants

By Ahmed al-Sharqawi

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Mourners carry the coffins of the victims of the blast at St. Mark's church in Alexandria during a funeral procession at the Monastery of Mar Mina in the nearby city of Borg el-Arab on April 10th. [Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP]

Egypt's military prosecution has commenced its pre-trial questioning of 41 defendants charged with attacks on three Egyptian churches, officials told Al-Mashareq.

The move is an initial step before the defendants -- all of whom are connected with the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) -- are brought to trial.

More than 70 civilians and members of the police forces died in suicide attacks targeting churches in Cairo in December and in Tanta and Alexandria in April.

Security agencies have identified the three suicide bombers who blew themselves up using explosive vests, and investigations have revealed links between the three, who all belonged to the "Soldiers of the Caliphate" group.

Egypt's public prosecutor previously investigated the case, in which 41 are accused, some in custody and others at large, and referred it to the military court.

According to a judicial source, the Soldiers of the Caliphate is an offshoot of ISIS affiliate Wilayat Sinai, created on the orders of Ezzat Mohammed, who is one of the defendants.

"The group's main task was to target Copts in Egypt," the source said.

Mohammed, a member of Wilayat Sinai, contacted his close friend Amr Saad, another defendant, to form an affiliated cell to carry out attacks on the Egyptian mainland, the source said.

"Saad recruited dozens of young men, mainly from al-Menya governorate and including suicide bombers Mamdouh Amin and Mahmoud Hassan Mubarak, who blew up the churches in Alexandria and al-Gharbiya," the source added.

Saad also recruited a fugitive doctor, Mohab Mustafa, as well as some of his close friends, and they travelled to Sinai, he added.

According to the source, Saad succeeded in convincing the defendants to embrace takfiri ideology.

"Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed, who blew himself up at St. Peter and St. Paul's Church in Cairo, killing 29 people, was receiving direct orders from Ezzat Mohammed and was not a member of Saad's cell," the source added.

Tough penalties for terror crimes

The military prosecution has relied on the investigations of security agencies, confessions of 10 detainees, and witnesses who confirmed that the defendants embraced takfiri ideology, the source said.

If found guilty, the accused are expected to receive the death penalty.

According to defence lawyer Ahmed Saad, the military prosecution has questioned the defendants and the case is expected to be brought before the military court soon.

"The referral of defendants to military courts is in accordance with Egypt's law and constitution, and is aimed at deterring terror groups and toughening penalties against those involved in attacks," said former State Security Agency deputy chief Fouad Allam.

Recent attacks indicate that ISIS has a presence inside Egyptian cities, Allam told Al-Mashareq, and that "it has recruited many young men who are capable of carrying out hostile acts against Egypt when they have a chance".

He stressed the need to confront terrorism on all levels, including via intellectual and religious channels.

ISIS's success in carrying out attacks in Egyptian cities and causing this scale of damage shows it is receiving intelligence information from various sources, said security expert Maj. Gen. Hamdi Bekhit.

"It also shows that the group has the ability to train its members and convince them to carry out suicide operations and smuggle explosives deep into Egypt," he added.

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