Egypt To Punish Tunnel Diggers With Life Jail Term

Egypt Sinai Peninsula
Smoke rises as a house is blown up during a military operation by Egyptian security forces in the Egyptian city of Rafah, near the border with southern Gaza Strip November 6, 2014. Reuters / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has issued a new law which extends the punishment for those convicted of digging border tunnels to life in prison, in another attempt to prevent smuggling between militants in the country's restive Sinai Peninsula region and the Gaza Strip.

Sisi amended the law yesterday, making it possible to give a life sentence to someone who "digs, prepares or uses a road, a passage or an underground tunnel at border areas to communicate with a foreign body, a state or one of its subjects", according to the state news agency MENA.

The amendment also means that a maximum life sentence could be given to those with knowledge of the tunnels and their creation who choose not to report their location to authorities. It added that the government could seize any buildings on top of the tunnels and any of the hardware used in their creation.

The area in which the smuggling tunnels operate, the Sinai Peninsula, has seen an increase in militant activity from the ISIS-affiliated group known as Sinai Province of late, despite a number of moves to improve security.

Last year, Sisi's government declared a state of emergency in the region and in January initiated the second stage of creating a buffer zone between the Sinai and the Palestinian enclave. Thousands of Egyptian homes have been demolished and citizens on the land have been evicted in order to facilitate what will eventually become a 5km (3.1 miles) long buffer zone, aimed to stop the construction of smuggling tunnels.

Yesterday, the Sinai Province claimed responsibility for two bomb blasts in the region, one killing eight and injuring 45 outside a police station in El-Arish, and one on a military vehicle in the town of Sheikh Zuweid which killed six soldiers and wounded two more.

The tougher sentence is a direct response to these continued attacks in the Sinai region despite an increase of preventative military operations in the last six months. Daniel Nisman, president of the Tel Aviv-based geopolitical risk advisory The Levantine Group says that the government blames the Sinai attacks "on militant elements in the Gaza Strip".

"Whenever there's problems in the Sinai they turn up the heat on smuggling activities in Gaza," says Nisman. "They've already done the buffer zone, now they are extending it to 5km, yet these attacks keep happening."

"When these militant groups continue to display an ability to attack despite these very tough measures, a response needs to be taken. The government needs to show that it is doing something to prevent these attacks."

In further reaction to the Sinai attacks, Sisi yesterday reshuffled top military personnel in a bid to give fresh impetus to the military operation against the Sinai Province terror factions. He rearranged top military, security and intelligence officials with his military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Salah El-Badry being the most high-profile figure to be sacked.