Egypt considers 37 death sentences for ISIS members, including militant leader

Country has been fighting militants for years on Sinai Peninsula and vast Western Desert

Egyptian security officials inspect the site of a bomb blast in Cairo in July 2015. Militants have killed police officers and bombed police headquarters in the capital. Reuters
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An Egyptian court on Saturday referred the sentences of 37 ISIS members, including one of the country's most high-profile militants, to the top religious authority for a non-binding opinion on whether they can be executed.

Customarily, all death sentences in Egypt are sent to the Grand Mufti for his advice on whether the ruling is consistent with religious law.

The Cairo Criminal Court said the extremists were charged with belonging to a local affiliate of ISIS, which has led an insurgency in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula.

Egypt has been fighting for years militants in the restive north Sinai Peninsula and the vast Western Desert.

The men are among more than 200 people accused of carrying out more than 50 militant attacks, including the killing of high-ranking police officers and bombings of police headquarters in Cairo.

The charges also include a 2013 assassination attempt on the Egyptian interior minister.

The ruling on the sentencing is set for March 2. The presiding judge may decide independently of the mufti.

Among those referred was Hisham El Ashmawi. The militant leader is a former army officer and was captured in Libya late in 2018 by forces loyal to Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, a close ally of Egypt.

A military court sentenced El Ashmawi, who left the army in 2011, to death in November.

For years, Egypt's security forces considered him to be the country's most wanted militant.

Authorities in Cairo linked El Ashmawi, who is in his 40s, to several major attacks, including assaults on security forces near Egypt's porous desert border with Libya.

Before he fled to Libya, he helped to found Ansar Beit Al Maqdis, a militant group in the northern Sinai.

His military expertise transformed the tiny group into a well-organised unit that inflicted painful blows on security forces in the Sinai.

Beit Al Maqdis swore allegiance to ISIS in November 2014 and is now known as ISIS Sinai Province.

But El Ashmawi did not declare his allegiance to ISIS, which at that time was at the peak of its power and controlled about a third of Iraq and Syria.

In an audio recording released in 2015, he allied himself with ISIS's rival Al Qaeda, led by Egyptian militant Ayman Al Zawahiri.

After fleeing to Libya, El Ashmawi tried to establish himself among militants and extremists in the country's east.

He formed Al Mourabitoun, a militant group blamed for most of the attacks in Egypt's remote Western Desert, including a 2017 ambush that killed about 30 Christian pilgrims on their way to a monastery.

Such attacks have been part of an insurgency led by the ISIS affiliate.

But the insurgency gained strength after the 2013 military overthrow of divisive Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi.

Egypt has granted police forces and courts sweeping powers in response to militant attacks.

Human rights observers said the crackdown resulted in an breaches of international law and abandonment of due process and .