CAIRO — Amr El-Beheiry’s trial in a military court lasted just five minutes. The 33-year-old Egyptian was arrested on Feb. 26 and sentenced without a lawyer present to five years in prison for breaking curfew and assaulting a public official during a demonstration in Cairo.
He is just one of thousands of civilians tried in military courts since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power in February during the uprising that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak. The special courts, which often group dozens of defendants together before a military judge, are notorious for their quick and severe sentences. Defendants are regularly denied access to legal counsel, and verdicts cannot be appealed.
Mubarak used such intrinsically unfair trials against citizens who challenged his regime: Islamists, disobedient workers, and various political opponents. Egypt’s military rulers appear to have borrowed from the ex-dictator’s playbook.
“Military trials are a tool in the SCAF’s hand,” says lawyer Ahmed Ragheb, executive director of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center. “They are using military courts because they provide more control than civil courts, which have independent judges and legal accountability.”
According to Ragheb, over 12,000 Egyptians have been sentenced in military courts in the last six months. By comparison, less than 2,000 civilians were tried in military courts during Mubarak’s 30-year rule.
“Unfortunately, military trials have become the norm and civil trials the exception,” Ragheb told IPS.
Activists who have seen their peers arrested and tried in military courts, often on what they claim are trumped up weapons and assault charges, say the wholesale use of military trials in recent months is aimed at sending a strong message: criticism of the regime will not be tolerated.
Since Mubarak’s ouster, protesters have demanded faster reforms and accused the ruling military council of seeking to protect its own interests, as well as members of the former regime. They say the SCAF has attempted to discredit the revolution by labeling civil protesters thugs and foreign agents.
One group of female protesters arrested in March was allegedly forced to undergo “virginity checks” and threatened with prostitution charges.
“They want to beat us and humiliate us to make people afraid to join demonstrations,” says 23-year-old Eman Hussein, whose parents have tried to prevent her from joining protests.
Rights organizations have warned of recurrent abuses of civilians serving sentences in military prisons. Former detainees speaking at press conference said they were subject to frequent beatings and humiliation by their jailers, including being forced to strip naked in front of their cellmates.
“It is very humiliating to stand naked in front of 180 people,” said Mohamed Soliman, a civilian detainee who was released after spending nearly two months in a military prison.
Military leaders have denied allegations of torture and abuse.
The SCAF recently acknowledged the right to a fair trial enshrined in the U.N. International Declaration of Human Rights, but said military trials were necessary due to the spiraling crime rates that accompanied the uprising that led to Mubarak’s ouster. It insisted that only cases of “thuggery” associated with weapons, rape, or assault of military personnel were being referred to military courts.
“No civilian should be tried in front of military courts,” SCAF member Major-General Mamdouh Shaheen told reporters. “But in this emergency situation … military courts took the place of civilian courts until they were able to work.”
Adel Ramadan, a lawyer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, claims security has improved and the country’s civil courts are capable of handling the additional caseload. He says that all citizens, even suspected thugs, are entitled to a fair trial and that those sentenced in military courts should be released or retried in a civil court.
He also voices concern over what amounts to a parallel justice system. While civilians have been referred to military courts for hasty trials, Mubarak and his former security officials are being tried in civilian courts on charges of killing nearly 850 protesters during the uprising.
“There is a perception that fair trials are only for the privileged,” says Ramadan.
The SCAF has done little to dispel this perception. Military courts continue to rule on cases ranging from petty theft to violent crime, handing down sentences of six months to 25 years in prison. At least a dozen defendants, including minors, have received death sentences.
Reversals are rare, but they do happen. Earlier this month the SCAF pardoned blogger Loai Nagati, who was arrested while documenting clashes between police and protesters in Cairo on June 28, and activist Asmaa Mahfouz, who was accused of inciting the public against the military council in a posting on her Twitter account. They were released followed a massive outcry over the charges. The release appeared aimed at appeasing the public.
Mona Seif, coordinator of the No to Military Trials campaign, says the military council has calculated its response, releasing a handful of prominent activists while showing no clemency for thousands of poor and disenfranchised detainees.
“The only cases in which the army released civilian detainees or promised a retrial were those in which it faced intense media pressure,” she says. “Media and social networking campaigns have helped secure the release of a few political activists, but now we are trying to draw attention to the thousands of regular citizens still in military prisons who are not part of these networks.”
(Inter Press Service)