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Military 'justice' in Egypt

Viktoria Kleber / slk
August 7, 2012

President Mohammed Morsi has promised to release all political detainees in Egypt by the end of Ramadan this month. But he has not abolished the military courts, which continue to try civilian activists.

A handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency shows (L-R) Egyptian Prime Minister Kamal Ganzoury, head of the military council Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, President Mohamed Morsi, and armed forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan during a graduation ceremony from the Air Force Academy, in Sharqiya, 140 km north east Cairo, Egypt, 10 July 2012.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

It was a Thursday in early February 2011 when Ahmed traveled from a Cairo suburb to participate in the protests at Tahrir Square. But instead of screaming for freedom, bread and justice, he screamed in pain. Soldiers in civilian clothing arrested him and brought him before a military court. The scars on his back pay witness to the cruelty he experienced - beatings, belt whippings, and electric shocks.

"We had to take off our clothes and lie face down on the ground," Ahmed told DW. "Then they were beating us - beating, beating, beating us. I guess there were about 30 soldiers who kept torturing us for over three hours."

Although Ahmed was ultimately acquitted of the charges he faced and was released from jail, he still fears for his safety and therefore would not provide his full name for this article.

According to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), some 12,000 civilians have been tried and sentenced before military courts from the start of the revolution in January 2011 until the official transfer of power to President Mohammed Morsi in June 2012. More than 9,000 of the detainees were subsequently acquitted, but over 2,000 are still in prison.

President Morsi has promised to release the rest of the political detainees by the end of Ramadan in mid August. Human rights activists like Joe Stork, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division, have been calling for the release of these detainees for a long time.

Demonstrators at Tahrir Square with Egyptian flag
Many of those detained by the military are revolutionary activistsImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"I think they should either be freed or they should be retried before civilian court," Stork told DW. "If these individuals may have been guilty of actual criminal offences, then it would be appropriate to try them before civilian court. But I think that should account to very few if any people."

The condemned revolution

Only very few of the detainees are criminals - the majority are political activists. Like Ahmed, many of them were arrested during demonstrations. And once they are brought before the military courts, they are at the mercy of soldiers.

The detainees rarely have access to a lawyer; there is usually no evidence against them; and the witnesses are mostly other soldiers. They often do not even know the charges that they face, or when and where their trial will take place. And they are often not present for their sentencing.

President Morsi has set up a commission to review the cases of those convicted in military courts, which will then give him recommendations on who should be pardoned. But the work of the commission has been criticized by human rights activists. The commission is only allowed to review cases that have been submitted by the military council.

The Egyptian non-governmental organization "No to Military Trials for Civilians" has documented 1,500 more cases than the commission. Morsi has pardoned some prisoners immediately. Fourteen Islamists were set free last week. Most of them were members of Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group that - among other acts of violence - was responsible for the 1981 assassination of former Egyptian president Anwar El Sadat

Military courts still in business

Mohammed Zaree of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights does not believe that Morsi will set the political detainees free. According to Zaree, the president is using the commission to pacify certain electoral constituencies, particularly the revolutionary activists.

"Why (would) you release Islamist(s) from the Jihad group, and they didn't release a lot of people that have been accused in demonstrations?" Zaree told DW. "He (Morsi) doesn't have the will to stop the military trials..."

Morsi has not abolished the military courts. Since he came to power, eight demonstrators in Suez have been sentenced to jail time. One of the condemned was a 16-year-old. According to the NGO "No to Military Trials for Civilians," around 80 other demonstrators are waiting for their sentence.

The detentions also continue under Morsi. "No to Military Trials for Civilians" reports that at least three demonstrators were detained in mid-July during a peaceful protest and brought before the military's public prosecutor.

In this image released by the Egyptian President, an Egyptian military honor guard stands in formation at a graduation ceremony attended by President Mohammed Morsi and other political and military dignitaries at a military base east of Cairo, Egypt, Monday, July 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Mohamed Smaha, Egyptian Presidency)
The military still hold tremendous powerImage: dapd

Renewed demonstrations

For Ahmed, Morsi's commission is a first step, but not enough. He feels that the president is not addressing the root of the problem and that he has appeased some of the families of the detainees, but the detentions and military trials continue.

"The military trials need to stop forever and for good," Ahmed said. "No civilian in front of military trials anymore."

That's what Ahmed and other activists will be demonstrating for on Wednesday of this week at Tahrir Square. It's the first time in a year-and-a-half that Ahmed has dared to go to Cairo. He's a little bit nervous. "But," Ahmed said, "My cry for freedom should finally be heard."

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