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 last month. The civilians were accused of nonviolent political offenses including membership in the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

"These men should not have been arrested in the first place, and it is a gross miscarriage of justice to put them on trial in a military court," said Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. "The government should stop referring civilians to military courts. There is no right of appeal, and as part of the executive branch of government these courts lack the independence of the civilian judiciary."

Egypt began referring civilians to military courts in 1992 in cases involving "terrorism." Following the first trials, Egypt's foreign ministry told Human Rights Watch that "all cases that have been turned over to the military courts for decision...are cases that involve terrorist groups that have committed the crimes of killing and harming public property." Beginning in 1995, in advance of Egypt's parliamentary elections, prominent members of the Muslim Brotherhood were referred to the military court, convicted of nonviolent offenses, and sentenced to prison terms of up to five years. Some of them had intended to run as candidates in the election, held in two rounds in November and December 1995. Egyptian nongovernmental organizations documented massive irregularities at the polls and arbitrary arrests of supporters of opposition party and independent candidates.

The next parliamentary elections are expected to take place in November 2000.

Human Rights Watch also called on President Mubarak to lift the ban on the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been in effect since 1954, and to allow its members to participate peacefully in all aspects of Egypt's political and civic life, without the threat of imprisonment for exercise of the right to freedom of association and expression.