by Cam McGrath
CAIRO, May 5, 2011 (IPS) - Thousands of Egyptian civilians, including protesters who helped topple the authoritarian regime of president Hosni Mubarak, have been tried in military courts without due process. "The use of military trials on this scale is without precedent," says Adel Ramadan, a rights lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR).
Court records indicate Egyptian military courts have handed down more than 7,000 sentences since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) removed Mubarak on Feb. 11 and assumed control of the country. Most of the trials have involved defendants accused of looting, arson and "thuggery" under tougher criminal laws passed after Mubarak’s ouster. The courts have also sentenced hundreds of protesters critical of the military council’s governance and decisions.
"Each case involves anywhere from one to 35 defendants… so we estimate that over 50,000 civilians have been sentenced in the last three months," Ramadan told IPS. "We’ve never seen anything like this. Even under Mubarak’s rule there were only two or three military trials a year. "
International rights groups have condemned the practice of trying civilians before military courts, arguing that such trials are inherently unfair. Defendants are denied access to legal counsel; sentencing is swift and severe.
Ramadan says defence lawyers appointed from a pool of SCAF-approved attorneys may be given as little as five minutes to meet with the accused, review the charges, and present the case before a military judge.
"It’s very clear that the lawyers are there just for show," he says. "Some lawyers have insisted they needed more time to read the charges and present a case, but the judge simply removed them and brought in another."
Sentences handed down by military courts – which have included at least three death sentences since February – cannot be appealed. Ramadan finds this particularly worrying given the widening accusations that army officers used torture and intimidation to extract confessions, and may have fabricated evidence against political agitators.
One protester arrested during the military’s Mar. 9 clampdown on an anti-government rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square claimed he was tortured and taken along with other detainees to an army camp "where a camera crew filmed us at a table with sticks, knives and Molotov cocktails placed before us, saying we were thugs."
Many Egyptians cheered when the army deployed during mass demonstrations against the Mubarak regime, chanting "The army and the people are one." Yet some now accuse the ruling military council of borrowing chapters from the former dictator’s playbook.
"If you protest, they beat you and can accuse you of any crime," says Mohamed Farrag, showing stitches on his forearm he claims he was given after a soldier struck him with a baton.
International rights watchdogs have demanded that the SCAF release all political prisoners and investigate allegations of army torture and abuse. They have also called for the retrial in a civilian court of any person charged with a criminal offence, noting a glaring double standard in treatment.
"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," Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
Journalist Rasha Azab, a former military detainee, has filed a lawsuit challenging the SCAF’s administrative decision to try civilians before military courts. The SCAF’s defence team described the case as "an attempt by inciters to ruin the relationship between the people and the army." It denied all torture allegations, and asserted that Egyptian military law authorises the trial of civilians in front of military courts.
The law would appear to conflict with international conventions that restrict the jurisdiction of military tribunals to military offences committed by military personnel.
One grassroots campaign aiming to raise awareness of this discrepancy is the "No to Military Tribunals" initiative. Activist Mona Seif says she helped launch the campaign after witnessing the army’s brutal crackdown on a peaceful demonstration in Tahrir Square in the early hours of Feb. 26.
Seif and her mother tried to intervene when they saw soldiers drag off and beat a protester, 33-year- old Amr El-Behery. The man was released only to be beaten and arrested again. They later learned that he was put before a military tribunal along with other protesters, and sentenced to five years in prison.
"It was basically a series of injustices," Seif told IPS. "They falsely charged him with assaulting an army officer and breaking curfew, then lied to his lawyers and gave them a wrong date for the trial, so when they came they found he’d already been sentenced. The trial had lasted just a matter of minutes."
Seif views the media’s role as paramount to generating public awareness of the military’s alleged transgressions and abuses, as well as putting pressure on the SCAF to address them.
"Unfortunately, the only cases in which the army released detainees or promised a retrial are those with media pressure," she says.
The SCAF promised to review the sentencing of four protesters after stories of their trials were made public. It also pledged to investigate whether some female protesters detained by soldiers on Mar. 9 were tortured and subjected to "virginity tests" – but only after the story was picked up by the international press.
Seif says rights groups and media outlets have highlighted the cases of a few high-profile political activists while largely ignoring those of many others – including minors – sentenced without due process. Many of the cases involve crimes allegedly committed during the security vacuum that preceded Mubarak’s ouster.
"Part of what we are trying to do in our campaign is to channel people’s interest in the few hundred protesters arrested during the army’s crackdown into the tens of thousands of regular citizens arrested for other issues," she says. (END)