A Cairo criminal court handed former military officer Hisham Ashmawi a second death sentence on terrorism charges on Saturday. Ashmawi, 42, was handed his first death sentence in November by a military court.
The court ordered that the sentences against Ashmawi and 36 others be referred to the grand mufti for his non-binding ruling as required by the Egyptian penal code. The court is scheduled to issue a final verdict on 2 March.
Ashmawi was convicted of 14 crimes, including the 2014 ambush that killed 22 Egyptian border guards, and a failed assassination attempt on a former interior minister in 2013.
The court convicted 37 defendants in the Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis case of involvement in the murder of a number of policemen and citizens including state security officer Mohamed Mabrouk, the former head of the interior minister’s technical office Major General Mohamed Said and police officer Mohamed Al-Menshawi.
The court said the defendants were also involved in sabotaging a number of security buildings in South Sinai, Cairo and Suez.
In the words of judge Hassan Farid, “the court concluded the 37 defendants, who were all members of Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, carried out 54 assassinations across Egypt since 2013 in a bid to destabilise the country and disrupt national unity.
“They did not have any sense of belonging to this country and so they felt free to carry out their crimes in the form of assassinating individuals, bombing buildings, attacking and vandalising churches and stealing police cars and money.”
Farid said the defendants had planned to use five kilogrammes of explosives to kill former interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim in September 2013. They were also found guilty of bombing the security directorates of Cairo, Daqahiya and South Sinai governorates, and had vandalised 25 private and public institutions, churches, post offices and vessels crossing Suez Canal.
The prosecution said the 37 defendants led a terrorist group that targeted the security and stability of Egypt.
“This group cooperated with the Gaza Islamist movement Hamas, the militant arm of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to target the security of Egypt, damage public utilities and carry out a number of premeditated murders,” said Farid.
Ashmawi, one of the most wanted Egyptian militants, was arrested in Libya in October 2018 and handed over to Egypt by forces of Libyan National Army Commander Khalifa Haftar in May.
A former Egyptian special forces and commando officer, Ashmawi had been sentenced to death in absentia before his return to Egypt.
Ashmawi fled Egypt following the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood regime. He first moved to North Sinai to lead Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis but in late 2014 broke with the group and swore allegiance to the Islamist State (IS). He then moved to Libya where he chose the city of Derna, 250km from Egypt’s western borders, to set up the Al-Qaeda-affiliated militant group Al-Morabitoun.
Khaled Okasha, head of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies, said in a TV interview that the deadliest attack led by Ashmawi targeted a security checkpoint in Farafra and caused the death of 22 border guards in October 2017. In May of the same year Ashmawi orchestrated attacks on churches in Tanta and Alexandria, killing 16 Copts, and an attack on Christian pilgrims in Minya governorate killing 28.
“These attacks led Egypt to declare a state of emergency. Ashmawi was the most dangerous Egyptian terrorist and the most wanted by Egyptian authorities,” said Okasha.
When the Libyan National Army took control of Derna expectations were high that Ashmawi would be apprehended. On 8 October 2018, Ashmawi and his associate Safwat Zidan were arrested by Libyan forces, and on 28 March 2019 Ashmawi was extradited.
“Since Ashmawi’s arrest and extradition the tide of terrorist attacks in Egypt has largely ebbed and the country has regained most of its stability,” says Okasha.
Security experts believe the General Intelligence was able to extract valuable information from Ashmawi on terrorist organisations in Libya and on Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis.
Meanwhile, 498 prisoners were released on Saturday after being granted presidential pardons. The group included 139 prisoners affiliated with the banned Muslim Brotherhood.
The ministry said the releases marked the commemoration of Egypt’s 68th annual Police Day. Several of those released gave television interviews in which they said they had been deceived by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Also on Saturday Egypt’s top appeals court ordered that opposition figure and former presidential candidate Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, along with seven others, be removed from a terrorist list for having ties with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood group.
The Court of Cassation said on 1 February that it had accepted appeals by Abul-Fotouh, his son, and six others against a criminal court order placing them on the list.
Abul-Fotouh was arrested in February 2018 after he returned from London where he had given interviews critical of the government. He was later placed on a terrorism list for having ties with the Brotherhood.
Egypt designated the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation in December 2013, months after the ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Abul-Fotouh remains in custody pending investigations into charges including “publishing false news harming national interests” and “leading an illegal group” that aims to topple the regime and disrupt public order.
Abul-Fotouh, who led the Strong Egypt Party, is a former member of the Brotherhood. He defected from the group in 2011 after it refused to field him as its official candidate in the 2012 presidential election.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.