Suspect in church bombing jailed before
Egyptian who blew himself up was known Islamist
CAIRO | The young man suspected of blowing himself up inside a Cairo chapel during Sunday Mass, killing at least 25 people, had been arrested and beaten by police two years ago after allegedly taking part in an Islamist demonstration, his lawyer said Monday.
If independently confirmed, Mahmoud Shafiq Mohammed Mustafa would be the latest Egyptian to be radicalized after being subjected to police abuse, a practice that was common for decades and has become rampant after a crackdown on dissent following the military’s 2013 ouster of an Islamist president.
Speaking after a state funeral for the victims, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said the suspect detonated a belt of explosives inside a chapel adjacent to St. Mark’s Cathedral, seat of Egypt’s ancient Coptic Orthodox Church. The chapel, over 100 years old, was packed with worshippers.
The dead included more than 20 women and children. Forty-nine others were injured, according to the latest figures from the Health Ministry.
Mahmoud Hassan, one of Mr. Mustafa’s lawyers, said his client, who was 16 at the time of his arrest, was tortured until he confessed to the possession of weapons and explosions. He also faced charges of membership in an “illegal organization,” Egyptian parlance for the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group of which former President Mohammed Morsi was a senior official.
The Interior Ministry said late Monday that Mr. Mustafa belonged to a terrorist cell founded by an Egyptian doctor and funded by Muslim Brotherhood leaders living in exile in Qatar, long accused by Egypt of supporting militants groups. It said the cell was tasked with staging attacks that would lead to sectarian Muslim-Christian strife.
After his arrest, Mr. Mustafa spent nearly two months in detention before being released on bail. A court later convicted him in absentia, according to the lawyer. Traumatized by the torture, he told his lawyer not to appeal, fearing he would be abused again if detained.
A police photo of Mr. Mustafa and a friend arrested on the same day showed the pair, clearly in their teens, with bleeding noses and bruised faces. Placed atop a coffee table in front of them was a rifle, ammunition and what appeared to be a homemade bomb.
Mr. Hassan insisted that Mr. Mustafa was not a member of the Brotherhood, but the young Egyptian student from the oasis province of Fayoum appears to have been radicalized by his experience in detention, a danger many Egyptian rights activists warn the government against. The activists seek freedom for anyone not involved in acts of violence.
Two local news websites on Monday quoted Mr. Mustafa’s mother as saying he had not been home in two years.
No one has so far claimed responsibility for Sunday’s bombing. Two active militant groups believed to have links to the Muslim Brotherhood — Hasm and Liwa el-Thawra — distanced themselves from the attack. The local affiliate of the Islamic State group has so far remained silent.
Sunday’s bombing was among the deadliest attacks in recent memory to target Egypt’s Coptic minority, which makes up around 10 percent of the country’s population and strongly supported the el-Sissi-led military overthrow of Mr. Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president, whose one year in office proved to be divisive.
Since then, Islamic militants have carried out scores of attacks, mainly targeting the security forces, while the government has waged a wide-scale crackdown on dissent.
Mr. Mustafa raised suspicions when, according to footage from a security camera, he hurriedly entered the chapel wearing a bulging jacket, prompting one security guard to follow him. About 10 seconds later Mr. Mustafa blew himself up. The guard who followed him was killed, said Khaled Diaa-Eldeen, who leads a team of prosecutors investigating Sunday’s attack.
Egyptians mourned 25 Coptic Christians killed Sunday by a suicide bomber, who police say was jailed before.