The Egyptian military should immediately end trials of civilians before military courts and release all those arbitrarily detained or convicted after unfair proceedings, Human Rights Watch said today. In the latest case, 28 civilians arrested in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on April 12, 2011, went on trial as a group before a military court on April 28.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has tried more than 5,000 civilians before military tribunals since February, including many arrested following peaceful protests in Tahrir Square. Trials of civilians before the military courts constitute wholesale violations of basic fair trial rights, Human Rights Watch said. At the same time, senior officials in the government of former president Hosni Mubarak are being tried before civilian courts on charges of corruption and using lethal force against protesters.
“Egypt’s military leadership has not explained why young protesters are being tried before unfair military courts while former Mubarak officials are being tried for corruption and killing protesters before regular criminal courts,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The generals’ reliance on military trials threatens the rule of law by creating a parallel system that undermines Egypt’s judiciary.”
Since Egypt’s military took over policing the streets from the Ministry of Interior at the end of January, it has arbitrarily arrested peaceful protesters. On February 26, March 6, March 9, April 9, and April 12, military police accompanied by other military personnel violently dispersed protesters and arrested at least 321 persons from Tahrir and Lazoughli squares. At least 76 of them remain in detention after unfair trials before military courts.
Human rights lawyer Adel Ramadan from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who has been representing defendants before military courts, told Human Rights Watch that, based on court rolls and case numbers, military courts handed down over 5,000 sentences across the country between February 11 and the middle of April. The military courts typically handle groups of between five and thirty defendants at a single trial, with a trial lasting 20 to 40 minutes.
Egypt’s Emergency Law, in place since 1981, and the Code of Military Justice authorize the president to refer civilians for military trials. Under the Mubarak government, such trials were reserved for high-profile political cases, such as the 2008 conviction of the former deputy guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shatir, and 24 others; cases in which the defendants had been arrested in a military zone such as the Sinai; or bloggers who criticized the military.
Since February, however, the military has tried thousands of civilians before military courts under the Code of Military Justice. The code, in articles 5- 6, allows for such trials only under specified conditions, such as when the crime takes place in an area controlled by the military or if one of the parties involved is a military officer. In a live television interview on a local station, ON TV, on April 11, Gen. Ismail Etman, the military’s head of Morale Affairs, said that “in cases where it affects the security of the armed forces or the security of the country such as thuggery, looting or destruction of property, theft, and especially if one of the parties is a military officer, we transfer it to military trials to be looked into immediately.”
The Code of Military Justice should be amended to restrict the jurisdiction of the military courts to trials only of military personnel charged with offenses of an exclusively military nature, Human Rights Watch said.
The Egyptian military amended the country’s penal code on March 1, under the legislative powers accorded to it by the Constitutional Declaration of February 13, to add the crime of “thuggery” in articles 375bis and 375bis (a) entitled “causing fear, intimidation and affecting sense of security.” It defines “thuggery” as “displaying force or threatening to use force against a victim” with the “intention to intimidate or cause harm to him or his property.”
The wholesale use of military courts to try civilians comes at a time when the military is trying to reassure Egyptians that it is taking a strong stance to suppress criminal activity. Since February 26, the military has sent faxes to Egyptian media listing the names and sentences of 647 civilians tried before military courts, lists that newspapers reproduced without providing any further information.
Based on these lists, over the past two months, military courts in Cairo, Alexandria, Ismailiyya, and other cities have sentenced civilians to prison terms ranging from six months to seven years – in at least three cases even 25 years’ or life imprisonment. The charges typically were breaking curfew, possession of illegal weapons, destruction of public property, theft, assault, or threat of violence.