CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Monday sentenced 14 members of an extremist group to death by hanging for attacks against police in the Sinai Peninsula, ruling that they were members of an organization that considers even other Islamists to be infidels.
Six of the men were present to be sentenced by the court in the Suez Canal governorate of Ismailia that borders Sinai, while another eight are still fugitives and convicted in absentia.
The death sentences highlight the conflict between the government of President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood, and extremist networks like el-Tawhid wi el-Jihad, blamed for the deadly attack last year in northern Sinai's el-Arish city.
The June 2011 attack against el-Arish's main police station and a nearby bank killed a civilian and a number of police and military officers. The group was also found guilty of storming el-Arish's police station and of smashing statues of former President Anwar Sadat who was assassinated in 1981 after signing Egypt's peace treaty with Israel.
El-Tawhid wi el-Jihad is part of a larger fringe trend in northern Sinai known as Takfir wil-Hijra. The movement's members, dubbed "Takfiris", lead secretive, isolated lives where anything and anyone that does not adhere to their rigid interpretation of Islam is deemed heretical — including the government and its security forces. Takfir wil-Hijra's leader was executed under Sadat in 1978.
The court issued its final verdict Monday after Egypt's top religious cleric approved the executions, as is customary for death sentences under the nation's legal system.
Another six men involved in the case were sentenced to life in prison. Four others were found not guilty.
Extremist militants operate in disparate groups in the Sinai Peninsula and are believed to have grown in numbers since last year's political upheaval following the ouster of Hosni Mubarak, largely due to a negligible police presence in the area. The volatile region, which links Egypt's borders with the Gaza Strip and Israel, has become increasingly lawless over the past year.
In a brazen attack, unidentified militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers near the border in August. More recently on Friday, heavily armed militants wearing explosive belts opened fire on Israeli soldiers near the border, killing one.