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Story highlights

Attack that killed three judges is latest violence against judiciary in Egypt's Northern Sinai

Militant attacks on security personnel and judges have surged since overthrow of President Mohamed Morsy in 2013

(CNN) —  

A small van speeds down a highway in the most dangerous region of Egypt, Northern Sinai. Four judges are on their way to the courthouse for the day’s proceedings, when another vehicle cuts them off. Gunmen step out and spray their van with bullets, killing three judges and the driver, according to the state-run Ahram Online news service. The fourth judge is severely wounded.

The May attack represents a new level of violence since the military overthrew Mohamed Morsy, the country’s first civilian and Islamist president, in July 2013.

Since then, militants have turned Northern Sinai into a graveyard, with ISIS-aligned Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis killing hundreds of security personnel.

The latest attacks show the militants have added a new target – the country’s judiciary.

In another incident, a judge – who didn’t want his named used because it might compromise his ongoing cases – provided pictures to CNN that he says show the aftermath of his house being bombed.

The night attack left a watermelon-size hole in the wall, along with shrapnel pockmarks.

No one was home at the time.

Again last March, a bomb exploded outside Egypt’s high court, killing two civilians.

No one claimed responsibility for either attack.

“All Egypt’s judges have been targeted since the trials of terrorist groups and their members began,” says Abdalla Fathy, the head of Egypt’s judges’ club. “But there are specific people that confronted the Muslim Brotherhood regime and these were the ones initially targeted.”

One thing that concerns Fathy about the May attack is that the three judges didn’t even preside over Brotherhood cases.

“They had no connection to Brotherhood cases, and despite this they were targeted and were martyred,” says Fathy. “There’s no doubt that all judges are in danger. And there is a need to secure them properly.”

Tensions between Egypt’s Islamists and judiciary emerged during Morsy’s presidency. He tried to sideline the judiciary and forcibly retire many senior judges, saying the measures were part of reform.

A popular military coup ousted Morsy on July 3, 2013, after only a year in office. But the turning point in the violence came the next month, when security forces cleared two camps of pro-Morsy protesters. The early morning raids created chaos that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people.

Since then, militants attack the police and army on a daily basis. Northern Sinai has seen some of the most deadly and audacious attacks.

Security forces have cast a wide net, arresting anyone belonging to or accused of working with the Brotherhood – a group designated by Egypt as a terrorist organization.

Judges have handed down heavy sentences, at times in controversial mass trials that include the death penalty for hundreds of people.

The National Council for Human Rights reports that holding cells at police stations are at 400% capacity and prisons at 160%.

Activists say the heavy-handedness of the security forces is counterproductive and turns peaceful protesters toward violence. Rights groups also accuse the judiciary of being a tool of the government.

“Mass death sentences are fast losing Egypt’s judiciary whatever reputation for independence it once had,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch. “Instead of weighing the evidence against each person, judges are convicting defendants en masse without regard for fair trial standards.”

Fathy denies there are any politics at play.

“The politicization is to side with a sector, party or organization. That is politics,” says Fathy. “But defending my home country, defending my people and standing up to any potential harm, this is pure patriotism.”

In a recent post on its official Arabic website, the Muslim Brotherhood endorsed a call urging followers to “resist this coup by all means until the fall of the regime” and asserted the “legitimate right to self defense.”

The post raises the question of whether the Brotherhood has completely abandoned peaceful resistance and is now calling for violent measures against the state.

“I think the statement is trying to speak to different audiences that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to keep under a single umbrella. The audience doesn’t agree on the way forward,” says H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy.

Hellyer cautions, though, against drawing parallels to other Islamist groups that have resorted to violence.

“You can’t yet say that the Brotherhood has turned to the path of a full-scale insurgency,” says Hellyer. “That may yet happen, because certainly the signals to escalation in a more violent fashion are there. But we don’t yet know how that escalation is going to manifest itself – will it be more of the same, or more radical? There doesn’t appear to be consensus in the group itself yet. Still, it’s a cause for serious concern.”

The battle between Egypt’s Islamist militants and security forces has already taken a heavy toll. According to Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, 2,600 people have died in the chaos following Morsy’s ouster.

During the period from June 2013 to the end of 2014, the majority of the deaths came from the Muslim Brotherhood. The death toll included 700 members of the security forces and 550 civilians.

The violence isn’t likely to subside anytime soon.

To address the growing threat, Egypt’s new justice minister created a unit to secure the country’s courts. Fathy vows their work won’t be deterred, despite the monumental task of protecting the country’s thousands of judges.

“Of course after this horrible and painful incident, everyone has become in danger. But at the end we would sacrifice ourselves, our blood and our lives for this country and the people.”