A presidential committee will "very soon" recommend the release of "a reasonable number" of civilians who faced military trials, reports Khaled Dawoud
Since taking office earlier this month pressure has been mounting on President Mohamed Mursi to release civilians -- no less than 2,165 according to disputed official figures -- charged or sentenced by military courts following the 25 January Revolution.
Mursi issued a decree ordering the formation of a high-level committee, made up of judges, military prosecutors, police and human rights activists, to examine the cases of nearly 12,000 Egyptians either tried, or charged, by military authorities over the past 18 months. The committee, which was set up on 4 July, was given two weeks to issue a preliminary report and recommendations. A spokesman for the presidential committee, Mahmoud Fawzi, said he hoped "good news" would be available for the families of at least some prisoners during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan which starts tomorrow. Fawzi added that "the cases of a reasonable number of prisoners will be settled soon and they can be released".
Fawzi confirmed that 11,879 civilians have been processed through military courts since 25 January 2011, "but many of these have been either released, pardoned or completed their sentences".
"According to the figures given to us by the Military Judicial Department, 2,165 people are currently in prison serving sentences handed to them by military courts, or are awaiting military trial."
Following the withdrawal of the police in the confrontation with protesters during the 25 January Revolution the army became the only effective security body in the country. Soldiers, mostly belonging to the Military Police Unit, were empowered to arrest civilians who were subsequently tried by military courts notorious for their lack of due legal process, and which handed down harsh sentences. Not only criminals were arrested by the Military Police. Many political activists were also arrested and faced military trials for taking part in demonstrations against the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
The release, or retrial, of civilians arrested by the army has been a major demand of human rights activists, opposition parties and radical youth coalitions for more than a year. "No to Military Trials of Civilians," the group led by young activists including Mona Seif, has been vehement in its condemnation of civilians appearing before military courts under any circumstances.
While a case could be made for the arrest of civilians by the army immediately after the police withdrew from the streets, says Seif, "now the security situation has improved civilians who faced military trials should be retried in civilian courts".
No to Military Trials disputes the figures released by the presidential committee on the number of Egyptians who have been through military courts.
"The figure the committee repeated -- 11,789 -- which was provided by the Military Judicial Department is exactly the same as Major General Adel El-Marasi, head of the department, announced in a news conference in September 2011. It is inconceivable that no Egyptians have been referred to military courts or arrested by the army since then," said a statement issued by the group.
No to Military Trials estimates that at least 3,000 civilians have appeared before military courts since El-Marasi released the 11,789 figure that is now being repeated by the presidential committee. They point out, in particular, to arrests made during recent clashes between the army and protesters in Abbasiya in early February, and later in Suez and Alexandria.
"In each of these incidents dozens of activists were arrested by the army and referred to summary trials at which they received harsh sentences," said the group's statement.
Last week three members of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) were arrested by the Military Police. According to an ESDP spokesman, the three were arrested in Nasr City on Thursday while taking part in a street campaign to increase awareness among citizens on the importance of the new constitution. At the time of their arrest a small protest was being staged nearby, in front of the house of Major General Hamdi Badin, commander of the Military Police, demanding the release and retrial of prisoners sentenced by military courts.
The three ESDP activists, says lawyer Ahmed Ragheb, were arrested "by mistake" when soldiers started rounding up the protesters in front of Badin's house. Ragheb says his clients were then taken to the headquarters of the Military Police where they were beaten and mistreated.
On Sunday a protest was held in front of the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis to demand their immediate release. The following day the Military Prosecutor's office ordered the three be freed from detention as charges against them were being examined. ESDP lawyers claim that the three activists had been held for five days and mistreated "in an attempt to please the commander of the Military Police after protesters dared to demonstrate in front of his house".
In an interview on Monday Fawzi appeared to rule out the possibility of all civilians sentenced by military courts being retried. He said the committee was looking into cases of detainees pardoned over the past 18 months by SCAF head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi after they were convicted by military courts, and hoped that the same would apply to prisoners currently detained on comparable charges.
"But many of the 2,165 prisoners now held by the military were convicted of serious crimes, including murder. I believe it would be difficult to reconsider those cases," said Fawzi. "There are other cases that could be disputed given that detainees were sentenced in confusing circumstances. We are hoping to look into these cases. The more complicated cases need time to be studied."
Fawzi did not exclude the possibility that the presidential committee would ask for an extension to its deadline.
Under the emergency law enforced throughout the three decades of Mubarak's rule citizens could be detained indefinitely. The emergency law expired on 31 May 2012 and neither SCAF nor parliament sought to renew it. Shortly before Mursi's election as president the Ministry of Justice issued a decree empowering Military Police and Military Intelligence officers to arrest civilians, but it was struck down by the Administrative Court late last month.