In a letter to President Hosni Mubarak made, Human Rights Watch protested the October 31 decision to prosecute twenty prominent civilians in Egypt's military justice system. The members of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of Egypt's largest political opposition forces, were arrested.
On November 1, 1999, the official MENA news agency announced the Egyptian government's resort to the military judiciary with the following English text: "A group of twenty activists of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, arrested in a crackdown twenty days ago, will be referred to the military court in implementation of a Republican decree released [on October 31]. The Higher State Security Prosecution will hand the file of the defendants' case to the court within days." According to the independent, Cairo-based Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP), this is the thirty-third case in which Egyptian civilians have been referred to military courts since 1992, with the total number of defendants in these cases now totaling 956.
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Egypt must ensure that persons charged with criminal offenses have the right to fair trials. Article 14 of the ICCPR stipulates that international standards in this regard include the right to "a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law," and the right to review of any conviction and sentence by a higher tribunal. Trials of civilians in military courts violate these rights on two counts. First, the courts' judgments are final and cannot be appealed to a higher court or tribunal. Second, military courts do not afford civilians full due-process rights before an independent tribunal: the military is part of the executive branch of government and its justice system lacks the greater independence of the civilian judiciary. Human Rights Watch thus strongly urges Your Excellency to discontinue the practice of referring civilians to military courts.
In the case of the twenty accused members of the Muslim Brotherhood, we also must reiterate our view that these men should not be prosecuted in the first place for "spreading the group's ideas" and "attempting to infiltrate the country's professional associations and controlling them," among other accusations. As we wrote to Your Excellency last month, the group of defendants includes prominent lawyers, doctors, engineers, and university professors, many of whom are activists and serve as elected officers of professional associations or members of these associations' councils. They should be free to participate peacefully in Egypt's political and civic life, and not threatened with imprisonment for the exercise of their right to freedom of association and expression. All political parties and groupings in Egypt should have the right to peaceful freedom of expression, which includes the freedom to impart information and ideas of all kinds, including the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood. Similarly, no one should face criminal prosecution for planning to compete peacefully in elections of professional associations on behalf of their political party or political grouping. Human Rights Watch again appeals to Your Excellency to lift the forty-five-year-old ban on the Muslim Brotherhood and permit its members to participate peacefully in all aspects of Egyptian political life without fear of arrest and prosecution.
Thank you for your attention to these important matters, and we look forward to a reply at your earliest convenience.
Middle East and North Africa Division
Human Rights Watch
His Excellency Dr. Atef Ebeid, Prime Minister
His Excellency Amr Mousa, Minister of Foreign Affairs
His Excellency Farouq Mahmoud Seif el-Nasr, Minister of Justice