(Cairo) - Egyptian military authorities should stop using military tribunals to prosecute civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The military should also halt detentions of peaceful demonstrators and end violence by soldiers against protesters and detainees, Human Rights Watch said.
Military courts have convicted dozens of civilians, all charged with criminal offenses, including possession of weapons, since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of Egypt on February 11, 2011. Reports of military trials of civilians, in particular people accused of weapons offenses and other crimes, have surfaced in the past week. While there may be cause to detain and prosecute people suspected of committing crimes, military courts typically do not meet international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said. In at least one case, a military court convicted detainees without the presence of lawyers, although the court later dropped the charges.
"Egyptian military authorities are continuing one of the worst practices of the Hosni Mubarak government by prosecuting civilians in military tribunals," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Authorities have no business arresting people merely for participating in a peaceful demonstration in the first place."
In one recent case, on February 26, soldiers arrested at least nine people during demonstrations in and near Tahrir Square, in central Cairo. The Defense Ministry, in a March 1 news release, announced that it was investigating them for having "sneaked in among the youth" protesting in the square and "causing unrest." In fact, on that day, a military court had convicted one of them, Amr Abdallah al-Beheiri, 32, for assaulting a soldier and breaking curfew, his lawyer, Adel Ramadan, told Human Rights Watch. Soldiers physically abused al-Beheiri when they arrested him on February 26, a witness told Human Rights Watch.
Al-Beheiri's brother, Mohammed, told Human Rights Watch that soldiers arrested al-Beheiri after midnight February 26 when the army raided Tahrir Square and a nearby street in front of parliament to clear the area of demonstrators. The brother said that the soldiers held al-Beheiri incommunicado and refused him access to lawyers. Ramadan discovered al-Beheiri's conviction while inspecting records at a military courthouse in the Nasr City district of Cairo on March 2.
In another case, Mohammed Isam al-Khatib told Human Rights Watch that soldiers at a military checkpoint detained him on February 2 while he was traveling by taxi to a bus station to return home to the city of Suez. He said the military detained him for nine days and then brought him to a military prosecutor, along with 20 other detainees. The prosecutor told al-Khatib he had violated military curfew, a charge al-Khatib contested, saying that soldiers had stopped him at 1 p.m. A military court session for al-Khatib and seven other defendants lasted 10 minutes, al-Khatib said. They were permitted neither to speak, except to deny the charges, nor to consult with court-appointed lawyers. Each defendant received a three-month suspended sentence, al-Khatib said, and soldiers then released them on the Suez-Ismailiya road near Hikstep, east of Cairo.
The Supreme Military Court has announced numerous convictions in recent days, but it is not clear to what extent the prosecutions are related to demonstrations. On March 1 the Supreme Military Court issued a list of three convictions in the city of Ismailiya, and 15 in Cairo, for crimes including weapons possession, assault, and robbery. On the same day, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper published statements from the Supreme Military Court listing the conviction of 13 other men in Cairo on charges of carrying rifles, explosives, knives, and other weapons, "terrorizing" citizens and violating curfew. Their sentences ranged from 5 to 15 years in prison.
On February 27 the Supreme Military Court announced sentences for 28 people charged with vandalism, carrying weapons, and other crimes at some point during the unrest of the past month. Some of those sentenced had destroyed an ATM machine, tried to steal a taxi, and carried an automatic weapon, the statement said.
On January 29 a group of people in street clothes turned eight men from Mahalla al-Kubra, a textile factory town in the Nile Delta, over to soldiers in the town's Shobra al-Kheima neighborhood, Sayed al-Badrawi, an uncle of one of them, told Human Rights Watch. Al-Badrawi said that on some unknown subsequent date, a military tribunal inside Wadi al-Gadid prison, 200 miles south of Cairo, convicted the eight men of carrying and using firearms, robbery, and breaking curfew. He said that on February 26, Mahmoud al-Hagrassi, a court official, told relatives of the defendants that the court had canceled these verdicts on February 23 but that the men had to appear in court in Cairo personally to gain release. The detainees could not appear, al-Badrawi said, because the prison officials declined to transport them to Cairo, citing security reasons. They remain in custody.
Human Rights Watch has also received reports of abuse of protesters by soldiers. On February 26 soldiers abused protesters at Tahrir Square and the parliament building, including Amr Abdullah al-Beheiri, with sticks and electric prods, a witness, Laila Soueif, who was participating in the demonstration, told Human Rights Watch. She said that when soldiers took al-Beheiri into custody he had bruises and scratches on his face.
One of the other protesters at the site, Mohammed Musa, recounted brutal treatment he had received in a garage at a building housing cabinet offices, near the parliament. Soldiers, including officers, kicked him all over his body and head, he told Human Rights Watch. Soldiers stripped some detainees and sprayed them with water, and beat and shocked others with electric batons, he said.
Late on February 26 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which currently rules Egypt, issued an apology, saying that what happened "was the result of unintentional confrontations between the military and the youth of the revolution." The statement said, "All measures will be taken to ensure this will not happen again"
"An apology for this kind of brutal physical abuse of demonstrators and detainees is not nearly enough," Whitson said. "Authorities need to hold the soldiers and officers responsible accountable.''
As a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Egypt must ensure that people charged with criminal offenses have the right to a fair trial. Article 14 of the ICCPR requires "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." Egypt's military tribunals do not meet these core standards, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Committee - the body authorized to monitor compliance with the ICCPR - has stated that trials of civilians by military courts should be very exceptional and occur only under conditions that genuinely afford full due process. Under changes to Egypt's Military Justice Code issued in April 2007, those convicted may appeal the ruling within 60 days, but only on procedural grounds.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (ACHPR), to which Egypt is also a state party, holds, in article 26, that state parties "shall have the duty to guarantee the independence of the courts." The African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights, the body created to monitor the implementation of the ACHPR, elaborated on these rights in its guidelines for a fair trial. "The only purpose of military courts shall be to determine offenses of a purely military nature committed by military personnel," the commission wrote, "Military courts should not, in any circumstances whatsoever, have jurisdiction over civilians.''
The Egyptian authorities should refer all civilian detainees to a civilian court, whose hearings are open to the public, Human Rights Watch said. Every detainee should be brought before an independent civilian judge immediately.
Egypt should also stop arbitrarily arresting peaceful demonstrators in the name of enforcing curfews, Human Rights Watch said.
"Egypt's emergency law was a major source of abuse under Mubarak and, alarmingly, these abuses are continuing," Whitson said. "The state of emergency needs to be ended now."