Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Army justice

Demands to ban the trial of civilians in military courts has resurfaced, reports Khaled Dawoud

Al-Ahram Weekly

Last week alone, three incidents involving civilians tried by the military judiciary renewed concern by human rights groups and activists over the practice and brought demands to bring it to an end, particularly as the country is on its way to drafting a new constitution.
In Suez, on 3 September, a military court sentenced 51 people to prison, including one to life imprisonment, two to 15 years, one to 10 years and 47 for five years, for involvement in clashes with army soldiers in the city right after the violent break-up by police of the Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Rabaa and Nahda on 14 August. Twelve defendants were acquitted following a trial that lasted for only two hearings. The court condemned them for attacking government buildings, police stations and setting on fire three churches in the coastal, strategic city which has been practically controlled by the army since February.
After a court sentenced 22 men to death in the nearby city of Port Said for killing 74 fans of the Ahli football team while attending a football match there a year before, residents went on a riot, attacked the local prison and clashed with the police. At least 43 people were killed. Port Said, Suez and Ismailia, all three important cities overlooking the Suez Canal, were placed under the army’s control since, with limited police presence.
According to Egyptian law, civilians involved in any legal dispute with military personnel, or attacking army property should stand military trials. During the 30 years of Emergency Law, in effect under former president Hosni Mubarak who was ousted in a popular revolution on 11 February 2011, the president also had the right to refer civilians to military trials in cases he deemed a threat to national security. Military courts are known for their harsh sentences and summary procedures.
More important, military sentences cannot be appealed, unlike civilian courts which allow two stages of appeal after the original sentence, and are subject to ratification by the president, the supreme commander of the Armed Forces. Mubarak referred hundreds of members of militant Islamist groups to military trials, and at least 100 people were executed between 1992 and 1998. Muslim Brotherhood leaders were also referred to military courts, but they also received prison terms ranging from three to seven years because they were not accused of violence.
After Mubarak’s removal, the emergency law was suspended, and no civilians were referred to military courts by either the former ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or former president Mohamed Morsi. However, the law allowing the trial of civilians by military courts in cases involving the army or its personnel was kept unchanged by Morsi during his year in office. Morsi’s political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, also made no effort to change the law when they drafted a new constitution in December 2012, despite appeals by human rights groups such as ‘No to Military Trials for Civilians’ and many others to ban the practice.
Following Morsi’s ouster on 3 July, and the army’s control of the streets again in several major cities, the possibility of a growing number of civilians facing military courts became an issue again. Mona Seif, a founding member of the No to Military Trials, and other human rights organisations have repeatedly argued, since Mubarak’s years in power, that no civilians should be tried by military courts at all, and that their mandate should be limited to military personnel only.
“According to the existing law, if I get into a car accident with an army officer, I cannot prosecute him except in a military court,” Seif said. Moreover, if the army brings charges against civilians, the fact that military judges who belong to the same institution would look into the case raises serious concerns over the chances of getting a fair trial. “You cannot be the prosecutor and the judge at the same time,” she added.
The case of famous football Zamalek player Mohamed Abdel-Razek, known as Shikabala among fans, clearly reflects what Seif meant. Last week, Shikabala was with other Zamalek players at the Red Sea Al-Gona Airport waiting to board a flight to Cairo. An army officer, dressed in civilian clothes and waiting for the same flight with his family, reportedly teased Shikabala by repeatedly pointing to his red shirt, which is the same color of Zamalek’s main football rival, Ahli. Eyewitnesses said an argument built up into a near fight between the two, and the army officer filed a complaint to the military prosecutor’s office. The Zamalek player was summoned by the military prosecutor, and following mediation by many parties, the case was settled on Sunday with an exchange of apologies.
Critics like Seif immediately argued that Shikabala’s fame was the only reason why his case was quickly settled, and not referred to a military court where he could have easily received a prison sentence. This would not be the case with scores of citizens who may find themselves in similar situations, and more since the army came to play an obvious role following Mubarak’s removal two-and-a-half years ago.
The third case that alarmed human rights activists and journalists was that of Ahmed Abu Dera, a well-known reporter who covers northern Sinai, a war zone for all intents and purposes over the past two months between the army and suspected militants. Abu Dera was arrested by the army a week ago, immediately referred to the military prosecutor and charged with spreading false information on the army’s operation in Sinai. The prosecutor ordered his imprisonment for 15 days. Worse, he was placed with seven other suspected militants arrested on the same day, and a photo was circulated to the press under the title ‘Terrorists arrested during army operations in Sinai’.
Abu Dera’s arrest, his treatment as a suspected terrorist despite his well known reputation as one of a few credible reporters in northern Sinai, and serious charges filed against him were condemned by human rights groups and the Press Syndicate. Dozens of journalists organised a protest in front of the headquarters of the Press Syndicate on Monday and demanded Abu Dera’s immediate release.
On Tuesday 10 September, four human rights groups, No to Military Trials For Civilians, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, the Egyptian Centre for Social and Economic Rights, and the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre, issued a statement condemning the sentences issued by the Suez Military Court against the 51 suspected Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The groups asked Interim President Adli Mansour not to ratify the sentences and to order a retrial in a civilian court “in respect for their right to be tried by their regular [civilian] judge”.
The same human rights organisations also asked Mansour to use his current mandate to issue decrees that have the effect of laws, and amend the articles in the military law to ban the referral of any civilian to military courts, and to limit their authority to military personnel only.
As the new 50-member committee appointed by President Mansour to amend the constitution drafted by the Muslim Brotherhood last year, and as political Islamist groups started its meetings this week, human rights groups renewed their request to totally ban the practice of trying civilians in front of military courts.
An initial draft that was prepared by a committee of 10 legal experts, and which was presented to the larger 50-member committee, continued to state that civilians could be tried by military courts “in crimes that present a direct aggression against the Armed Forces”. Seif, of No to Military Trials, suggested the text should read ‘Civilians Should not Stand in Military Trials’. “Full stop. The term ‘direct aggression against the army’ is clearly flexible and could be used any way they want.”

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