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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 July 2018

Egypt sentences 36 to death for role in Church bombings

At least 80 people killed in one year in attacks on Coptic churches

Coptic Christians protest on December 12, 2016 as policemen stand guard after a funeral service for victims of a deadly bombing at the Virgin Mary Church, in Cairo, Egypt. Nariman El-Mofty / AP
Coptic Christians protest on December 12, 2016 as policemen stand guard after a funeral service for victims of a deadly bombing at the Virgin Mary Church, in Cairo, Egypt. Nariman El-Mofty / AP

Thirty-six people were sentenced to death on Tuesday by an Egyptian military court for their role in a number of deadly church bombings and attacks on security personnel.

Prosecutor-General Nabil Sadek referred the accused to an Alexandria military court last May after at least 80 people died in a series of shootings and bomb attacks on Coptic churches in Cairo, Alexandria and the Nile Delta city of Tanta between 2016 and 2017.

The case includes defendants charged with participating in a January 2017 attack on a security checkpoint near the Western Desert that killed eight policemen as well as an attack on the Naqb checkpoint more than 600 kilometres southwest of Cairo.

President Abdel Fattah El Sisi declared a three-month state of emergency after last year's Palm Sunday church attacks.

The measure has since been renewed three times following ISIL's targeting of security forces in the Western Desert and an attack in November on a North Sinai mosque in which more than three hundred mostly Bedouin worshipers were killed.

According to defense lawyers, the Alexandria military court case named 48 defendants - 31 of them are in custody and 17 are fugitives.

The accused were found guilty of having links to terrorist cells affiliated with the Egyptian ISIL branch as well as illegal weapons and explosives manufacturers.

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Prosecutors charged defendants with planning to launch attacks against Christians during holiday celebrations and regular Sunday services. The main defendants, said the prosecutors, were coordinating operations with the leadership of "Wilyat Sinai" - Egypt's ISIL affiliate - which was supporting them logistically as well as dispatching personnel.

The court has referred the death sentence penalty to the country's Grand Mufti Shawki Allam. The mufti's non-binding opinion on capital cases is customary under Egyptian law.

The verdict is also subject to appeal, a process that can take years to complete.

Egypt's Coptic minority makes up around 10 per cent of the country's 96-million-strong population, and they have been targeted on numerous occasions by ISIL.

The most recent attack on the community took place in December when gunmen on a motorcycle opened fire outside the Saint Mina church in Helwan, south of Cairo, killing ten people.

In December 2016 a suicide bomber killed 29 and injured 47 at St Peter and St Paul’s Church. The building, part of Saint Mark's Coptic cathedral, is on a large campus in the Abbassia district of the capital which includes the Cairo residence of Pope Tawadros II.

But heavy security was on display last weekend as the Egyptian Copts celebrated Easter, with police and army deploying both manpower and explosive detection devices in an 800 metre perimeter around churches.

Whole blocks in Cairo and Alexandria close to churches were sealed off to vehicular traffic in what was an incident free holiday this year.

“Security used to rely more on the informal relationship between each church and the police station of its area," said Mina Ibrahim, a Coptic affairs analyst at the Orient Institut Beirut.

"Now, there are a lot of centralised plans led by the Interior Ministry regarding the strategy and the distribution of police officers and they place higher-ranking officers around churches.”