(Beirut) – Military courts have tried at least 7,420 Egyptian civilians since October 2014, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi decreed a major new law that expanded military court jurisdiction.
A list of civilians tried in military courts, provided by the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, an independent legal and human rights group, documents for the first time the extent to which al-Sisi’s administration has used the military justice system to expedite its harsh crackdown on opponents.
Most defendants were sentenced after mass trials that violate fundamental due process rights, and some courts relied on confessions extracted under torture, relatives of the defendants said.
“Apparently unsatisfied with tens of thousands already detained and speedy mass trials that discarded due process in the name of national security, al-Sisi essentially gave free rein to military prosecutors,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “He has handed back to the military judiciary the powerful role it enjoyed in the months after Egypt’s uprising, when the nation was governed by a council of generals.”
The list provided to Human Rights Watch documented 324 cases, identifying defendants by name, sex, home governorate, and case number, and in many cases by profession and age. The largest case involved 327 defendants.
The list did not describe the charges in each case. But a Human Rights Watch survey of about 50 Egyptian media reports since October 2014, describing the referrals of thousands of people for military trials, indicates that most of those charged in military courts were transferred there because the broad provisions of al-Sisi’s law essentially put all public property under military jurisdiction, not because they committed crimes involving the armed forces.
The media reports indicated that a large number were accused of participating in illegal or violent protests, as well as membership in or support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Since July 2013, when the military removed Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first freely elected president and a former Brotherhood member, Egyptian judges have sentenced thousands of members of the group.
These military trials have swept up at least 86 children, as well as students, professors, and activists, including individuals who were forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured. Military courts have handed down 21 death sentences since October 2014, though a lawyer with the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms said that none have yet been approved by the Supreme Military Court of Appeals.
In May 2015, six men were hanged following verdicts handed down by a military court in August 2014, despite evidence that some had been in detention at the time of their alleged crimes.
Human Rights Watch interviewed relatives of seven people, including four men sentenced to death and one child, who were all tried in military courts in the past year. Six told their families that agents of the Interior Ministry’s National Security branch tortured or beat them to elicit confessions, including four who were tortured with electric shocks. Five said they were forcibly disappeared by the authorities for weeks or months. In all but one case, their convictions were based in large part on the confessions, according to their relatives and case files.
In one case, following a mass trial of 27 defendants, a military court sentenced Seif al-Islam Osama, who was 15 when arrested, to three years in a juvenile detention facility for allegedly participating in an illegal protest, despite defense lawyers’ arguments that he was too young to face military trial and had not actually been a participant.
Al-Sisi’s Military Courts Law
On October 27, 2014 – three days after armed extremists killed dozens of soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula – al-Sisi, in the absence of a parliament, decreed Law 136 for the Securing and Protection of Public and Vital Facilities.
The law placed essentially all public property under military jurisdiction for two years and specifically included electricity stations, gas pipelines, oil wells, railroads, road networks, and bridges, in addition to similar state-owned property. To charge civilians under the law, military prosecutors filed charges such as blocking road and rail networks, burning electricity infrastructure or attacking government property, such as telephone exchanges.
On November 11, 2014, Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat issued a memo to prosecutors instructing them to review their files for cases that might fall under the new law, prepare memos about them, and refer them to military prosecutors “whenever requested.”
Article 204 of Egypt’s Constitution, approved by popular referendum in January 2014, under the interim government that followed Morsy’s removal, specifies a range of crimes for which civilians can face military trial, though it ostensibly limits such cases to assaults on military personnel or equipment, or crimes that involve military factories, funds, secrets, or documents. The article is largely the same as one in the previous constitution, passed during Morsy’s administration, which also allowed military courts to try civilians, despite protests from activists and some politicians.
The wave of military prosecutions against civilians since October 2014 marks a return to the practice, which the authorities employed widely after Egypt’s 2011 uprising. Between January 28 and August 29, 2011, 11,879 civilians faced military trials, and at least 8,071 were convicted, according to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which governed Egypt during most of that period.
Under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime president ousted in 2011, emergency law allowed him to refer civilians directly to military trial. Between 1992 and 1998, military courts tried more than 1,000 civilians in mass trials, most of them alleged members of al-Jihad or the Islamic Group, extremist Sunni Muslim organizations that were waging an antigovernment insurgency.
Such trials were rarer during the 2000s and mostly reserved for sensitive political cases, such as those against members of the Brotherhood leadership. Military trials of civilians virtually halted during Morsy’s one-year administration, which began in June 2012, though the practice remained legal.
Three cases documented by Human Rights Watch show how military trials under al-Sisi have relied solely on the word of National Security officers, some of whom are accused by defendants of using torture during their enforced disappearance to force them to confess.
The Damietta “Terrorist Cell”
In late April 2015, National Security agents arrested two men from Damietta, a city near Egypt’s Mediterranean coast. Their families told Human Rights Watch that the agents forcibly disappeared the men by holding them in Damietta’s central police station without access to lawyers for 15 days, while the families’ requests for information about their whereabouts went unanswered. Both men told their families that National Security agents tortured them during their detention to elicit confessions.
Police arrested Mohamed al-Sayed Korat from home at around 3 a.m., said his wife, who was awake with their 4-month-old son at the time. Korat told his lawyer that, while in detention, National Security agents blindfolded him and his fellow detainees, cuffed their wrists to opposite legs and administered electric shocks. He said they threatened to pull out one of his eyes and to arrest his wife and son. Eventually, he said, he agreed to appear in a video, confessing that he had been the ringleader of a terrorist gang.
The other detainee, a high school student who was known for criticizing the government, was arrested on the street outside his school on his way to take an exam, his mother said. He told his family that to force him and the others in the group to confess, National Security agents stripped them, walked on them, extinguished cigarettes on their skin, and gave them electric shocks on various parts of their bodies, including their genitals.
On May 5, fifteen days after their arrests, Korat and the student appeared before a local prosecutor for questioning and were allowed to meet with lawyers. Korat, the student and two other men accused in the case seemed to have been included randomly and did not know each other, the student’s mother said.
Later that month, the Interior Ministry published a video of their confessions on YouTube, claiming that police had arrested them as part of a 12-man cell in Damietta. The ministry said the arrests were part of efforts to counter the “terrorist Muslim Brotherhood group” and disrupt its plans to attack the authorities and sabotage state infrastructure.
In the video, a narrator claimed that authorities had found “activated explosive devices, machine guns, and explosive-making materials” in their homes. The narrator accused the men of belonging to a “specific operations committee” and said they had admitted to placing explosives under gas pipelines and beside Damietta’s police station and traffic department.
Two months later, the prosecutor handling the case transferred it to a military counterpart, who eventually brought it before a military court.
The military prosecutors charged the defendants with burning a Tax Authority car and two electricity stations belonging to the North Delta Company for Electricity Distribution, with the goal of “terrorizing and intimidating” citizens and “exposing their lives and assets to danger,” according to the prosecution’s order sending the case to court. The order did not mention the claims made in the confession video, such as planting explosives.
The order stated that the military prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of three security officers, two of whom worked in the same police station where the defendants said they had been tortured.
The primary witness was Cpt. Ahmed Ibrahim Kiwan, chief of investigations at Damietta’s central police station, who testified that the defendants had confessed to burning the car and two electricity stations. Cpt. Faisal al-Saudi Sarhan, a National Security officer also based at the police station, and Lt. Col. Mohsin Naguib Mowafi, a local police inspector, corroborated Kiwan’s testimony.
During a five-month trial, the panel of military trial judges allowed the defense lawyers to present their case and seemed to regard the student sympathetically. His mother said that one judge remarked that he should be released.
Because the case relied solely on the word of the National Security officers, the defendants’ families believed their relatives would be acquitted. But on January 20, 2016, the military court sentenced the high school student to three years in prison and Korat to seven years. They have since been transferred to Gamassa Prison, near Damietta.
“He’s very depressed because his son doesn’t know him, and he can’t sit with him,” Korat’s wife said. “They’ve made us come to the point that I just thank God my husband is alive.”
A Child in Military Court
On the night of August 3, 2014, Seif al-Islam Osama, then 15, set out to New Damietta City with friends. As they walked down a seaside promenade, police stopped them at a checkpoint set up in the aftermath of a protest elsewhere in the city, his father told Human Rights Watch.
His friends ran, but he stayed. Men in civilian clothes working for the police attacked him, his father said, punching him in his face and stomach. They bundled him into a police truck, drove him to Damietta’s central police station and held him overnight. During the night, other inmates told his parents, the police beat him and threatened to torture him with electricity if he told his parents.
The next day, police brought Osama before a local prosecutor for questioning. A photograph taken by a lawyer at the prosecutor’s office shows him sitting on a hallway bench, handcuffed to another detainee by his left wrist, wearing his red T-shirt from the previous day, which is stained with dried blood. He looks at the camera dejectedly. After the interrogation, a prosecutor ordered him detained for 15 days pending investigation.
The prosecution held Osama in temporary detention for five months, while the authorities moved him from one small-town police station to another. In December 2014, two months after al-Sisi issued his law expanding military court jurisdiction, the prosecutor referred al-Islam’s case to a military counterpart.
The case included 27 defendants, most from the small town of Kafr Saad, near Damietta. They were accused of protesting illegally, carrying weapons, blocking roads, possessing publications that promoted the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood, and trying to sabotage state institutions.
Prosecutors charged many of them with breaking a 2013 law that effectively banned protests, using a provision that criminalizes any demonstration that “impedes the interests of citizens,” “influences the course of justice,” or “blocks traffic,” among other acts.
A military court at al-Galaa Military Camp in Ismailia, a city on the Suez Canal, began hearing Osama’s case in January 2015, more than four months after he was detained. In April, he took the end-of-year exams for his first year of high school while in detention.
The military court relied on the testimony of two security officers: 1st Lt. Mahmoud Abd al-Ghani, an assistant investigator with the Damietta police station, and Maj. Mahmoud Gelal, a National Security officer, according to a copy of the verdict seen by Human Rights Watch.
Adb al-Ghani testified that on August 3, 2014, he had observed a march of about 70 people in New Damietta City carrying signs that said “Down with the Coup” and chanting slogans “hostile to the army, police and judiciary.” The crowd blocked a road with trash cans and set them on fire before security forces confronted them and arrested three people, among them Osama, he said. Gelal, the other officer, testified that the marchers had carried sticks and flares and said he had identified 22 participants, including Osama.
On August 4, 2015, a year later, the court found Osama guilty of violating the protest law and sentenced him to three years in a juvenile facility, one year more than the two-year minimum. The court also leveled the minimum fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$5,630).
The court dismissed the defense lawyers’ argument that only a juvenile court was competent to try a child of Osama’s age. The judges pointed to article 122 of Egypt’s 1996 Child Law, which allows for the trial of children in criminal courts or Egypt’s Supreme State Security Court if they were 15 or older at the time of the alleged crime, participated with an adult accomplice, and “the case necessitated” trying the two defendants together. The Child Law requires the court to “examine the circumstances of the child from all aspects” in making its ruling and allows the court to seek expert assistance.
Osama’s father told Human Rights Watch that a civilian social worker would usually provide such expertise in a regular criminal court, to assess Osama’s education, mental state, and other aspects of his life, but that the military court assigned a military prosecutor to perform that role.
The court appeared to rely entirely on the testimony of the National Security officers, requiring no evidence other than their statements. It dismissed the defense claim that police had arrested Osama after, and not at, the demonstration, saying that the charges were credible because they were based on Abd al-Ghani’s eyewitness testimony.
In November 2015, the authorities transferred Osama to al-Marg Punishment Institute, a juvenile facility outside Cairo. The family now faces a more than 230-kilometer round trip to visit and must leave at dawn to get in line before the institute’s 8 a.m. opening time, which the authorities sometimes change at random, they said.
“He is tired, psychologically. He doesn’t say much,” his mother told Human Rights Watch. “I know from the letters … when I read the letters they’re all miserable. He told me, ‘I’ll be standing, bending my legs, I have to take permission from the person who’s older than me to stretch them. Everything, there is punishment in it.’”
Sentenced to Death
Just before noon on April 15, 2015, an explosive device detonated inside a room next to a gate at the main sports stadium in Kafr al-Sheikh, a provincial capital in the Nile Delta. The explosion blew a hole through the concrete wall that faced the gate, killing three military academy students and wounding two others. The gate served as a bus stop for the students, who had gathered there to wait for a ride back to school following the Sham al-Nasim spring holiday.
In early July, the prosecutor general’s office in Cairo ordered the bombing investigation – which then involved 63 defendants – transferred to military prosecutors in Tanta, a nearby provincial capital. They later sent the case to their counterparts in Alexandria.
In October, Alexandria military prosecutors referred to trial 16 defendants, including the president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s administrative office in Kafr al-Sheikh governorate, his deputy, and the local assistant secretary of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
In March 2016, an Alexandria military court sentenced seven defendants to death, only four of whom were in custody. Human Rights Watch spoke to their relatives, who said that the case against them was based on the false testimony of National Security officers and confessions obtained through torture during three of the men’s forced disappearances.
One of them was 23-year-old Lotfy Ibrahim, arrested four days after the bombing by police at about 4 p.m., as he returned home from his mosque.
The next day, his mother sent telegrams to the public prosecution’s office in Kafr al-Sheikh and to the prosecutor general in Cairo seeking information but received no response.
His parents said they heard nothing for more than two months. During his disappearance, he later told them, the authorities rotated him between Kafr al-Sheikh’s Military Intelligence office, the National Security office, and the central police station.
At the Military Intelligence office, he said, his interrogators tortured him. They stripped him, laid him on his stomach, and gave him electric shocks on multiple parts of his body, including his genitals. They threatened to arrest his mother and sister.
In a room they called the “oven,” he said they forced him into various stress positions. They hung him by his legs, for what he estimated were six-hour sessions, or by his arms, slung over the top of a door behind his back, a position that put extreme pressure on his shoulders. Sometimes, they laid him over the upturned legs of a chair, with his hands and legs tied together.
“The whole case was built on torturing Lotfy after he forcibly disappeared, to accuse certain people,” his father said. “If they did this to me – and I’m old – and they accused me of blowing up the World Trade Center, I’d admit it.”
The day after Ibrahim’s arrest, on April 20, police went to Ahmed Abd al-Moneim Salama’s advertising office. Encountering Salama, 41, as he came down the stairs with a friend, they arrested both men and blindfolded Salama. Soon afterward, they released Salama’s friend, who told Salama’s family that Salama was being tortured in custody.
Like Ibrahim’s mother, Salama’s wife sent telegrams to the prosecutor general in Cairo and the local prosecutors in Kafr al-Sheikh and Tanta, requesting information about Salama’s whereabouts. For more than two months, she received no response.
On May 6, she learned that Salama was being held at a nearby Central Security Forces camp. When she visited the camp and conscripts brought Salama out, she told Human Rights Watch, he seemed unable to walk on his own, and his nose was broken.
“I almost died several times,” he told his wife. A minute later, the conscripts took him away.
Police arrested 29-year-old Ahmed Abd al-Hadi Mohamed, who worked on cooling systems at an ice cream factory, the day before the bombing, on April 14, 2015. Abd al-Hadi had received a call to repair one of the factory’s refrigerators around midday, and sometime that evening, before he returned home, police arrested him and his brother, his mother told Human Rights Watch.
His brother was later released, but their mother could not find Abd al-Hadi. Like other families, she searched for him at local detention facilities and police stations. Each time, officers told her to look elsewhere.
About 15 days after Abd al-Hadi’s disappearance, his mother managed to visit him at Kafr al-Sheikh’s central police station. He was limping, appeared skinny and “yellowish,” and would not talk about his detention, she said.
He later told her that National Security agents had come every morning at 2 a.m. to beat him and other detainees and give them electric shocks to force them to confess, ordering him to identify the others accused in the bombing case, though he protested that he did not know them.
Abd al-Hadi told his mother that he had gone on hunger strike for a time to protest the torture, and that the head of investigations at the Kafr al-Sheikh police station threatened to retaliate. Abd al-Hadi believed that his hunger strike was why National Security investigators decided to name him in the bombing case, his mother said.
Shortly after the bombing, security forces also came looking for Sameh Abdallah Youssef, a 32-year-old Kafr al-Sheikh resident who was working in October 6th City, a Cairo suburb. Youssef tried to leave Egypt on August 28, 2015, but was stopped at passport control in Cairo International Airport and sent to Alexandria 24 hours later.
During the military trial, each defendant called alibi witnesses who testified that the men had been elsewhere at the time of the bombing, the families told Human Rights Watch. Youssef called witnesses who said that he had been working in October 6th City at the time, and Abd al-Hadi’s witnesses testified that he had been arrested while repairing a refrigerator the day before the bombing. Other witnesses testified that Ibrahim had been at work at a construction firm a mile from the stadium from morning to nightfall on the day of the bombing, a relative told Mada Masr, an independent news website.
Prosecutors introduced two flash drives, each containing a video of Ibrahim’s confession, in which he said that he had triggered the bombing with a particular kind of remote control.
The defense team said that Ibrahim had been tortured into making a false confession and pointed to testimony from a technical expert who said that the bombing was probably activated by a mobile phone and could not have been accomplished by that type of remote control. The court did not investigate the allegations of torture or enforced disappearances, despite requests from defense lawyers, a lawyer told Human Rights Watch.
The Alexandria military court handed down initial death sentences for the seven defendants on February 1, 2016. The court confirmed the death sentences on March 2, after receiving the unbinding but legally mandated advice of Egypt’s grand mufti, the country’s highest Islamic official. The men, most of whom are now in Alexandria’s Borg al-Arab Prison, have one opportunity to appeal the ruling, to the Supreme Military Court of Appeals.