Egypt's long history of military trials

Ahmed Mahmoud (Al-Ahram Weekly), Sunday 25 Sep 2011

While not new, military trials in Egypt since the January 25 Revolution have spiked at an alarming rate

MB Sayed Qotb (right) on trial in 1965
MB Sayed Qotb (right) on trial in 1965

Since Egypt's January 25 Revolution, growing numbers of political activists, as well as alleged criminals, have been referred for trial before military courts, with lawyer Adel Ramadan telling the international NGO Human Rights Watch recently that over 5,000 people had been sentenced by such courts between the beginning of February and the middle of March alone.

The courts often handle large groups of defendants at once, with groups of five to 30 people receiving trials that can last between 20 and 40 minutes each.

Such procedures raise questions about the kind of justice being offered by military courts, Ramadan said, as well as about why Egypt's ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been dragging its feet over the civil trials of leading members of the ousted Mubarak regime.

Since military trials came to light, nearly 100,000 activists have voiced their opposition to them on Facebook and Twitter. While this number may be small compared to Egypt's overall population, the silent majority is unlikely to support such trials either, and it has certainly failed to turn out in defence of the ousted regime.

The first military trials of civilians in modern Egyptian history took place in 1954, when members of the Muslim Brotherhood were accused of trying to assassinate former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Alexandria.

Seven Brotherhood members were given the death sentence on that occasion: Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, Youssef Talaat, Ibrahim El-Tayeb, Hendawi Duweir, Mohamed Farghali, Abdel-Qader Ouda and Hassan El-Hodeibi, though the latter's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

The court was presided over by members of the Free Officers group that had taken power in the 1952 Revolution, with Salah Salem, Hussein El-Shafei and Anwar El-Sadat serving as judges.

It took the military court just under one month to hand down various prison sentences to other Brotherhood members. Among those sentenced to life imprisonment was Mohamed Mahdi Akef, a future Brotherhood guide, who spent 20 years in prison before his release in 1974.

A second round of military trials took place in 1965, when hundreds of Brotherhood followers were accused of trying to revive the then banned organisation.

One of the main defendants was the writer and intellectual Sayed Qotb, who was sentenced to death along with Youssef Hawash and Abdel-Fattah Ismail. Seven others received death sentences that were later commuted to life imprisonment.

Members of the Brotherhood also received military trials under former president Mubarak's rule in January 1995, when 94 Brotherhood followers were prosecuted for "attempting to revive a banned group".

Of these, 34 received sentences of between three and five years in prison, including Essam El-Erian and Ibrahim El-Zaafarani, and 15 were acquitted.

In November 1995, Brotherhood members faced a military court for the second time, when 33 received sentences of between three and five years in prison and 13 were acquitted. A further trial was held in the same month, in which two Brotherhood members received three to five years in prison and a third defendant was acquitted.

In 1996, 13 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested in connection with the so-called Wasat Party case, among them former supreme guide Mohamed Mahdi Akef. A military court handed down sentences of between three and five years in prison against eight defendants, including Akef, acquitting five others.

In a further case in 1999, 20 Brotherhood members were referred for military trial, with 15 of them receiving prison sentences in 2000 and five being acquitted.

In 2002, 22 Brotherhood members, including several university professors, were referred for military trial, and 15 of these, including Mohamed Ali Beshr, current supreme guide Mohamed Badie, and lawyer Mokhtar Nouh, received prison sentences. Seven were acquitted.

In 2007 and 2008, a further trial of Brotherhood members took place, with 40 members of the organisation, including deputy guide Khayrat El-Shater, facing charges of money laundering and financing a "banned group."

It took a military court more than a year to hand down a verdict, with the court sentencing 25 to between three and five years in prison and acquitting 15 others. These trials took place under emergency law, which has been in force since 1981.

The military trials that have taken place since Egypt's January 25 Revolution have been mostly for those arrested during public disturbances, with defendants accused of thuggery and disturbing the peace.

However, the large number of defendants suggests that some have been arrested simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and political activists have been particularly vulnerable to arrest.

On 1 March this year, the SCAF added an amendment to the country's penal code that adds the crime of "thuggery" to those mentioned in Article 375 of the code.

This is described as any "show of force threatening harm against the victim with the aim of intimidating him, threatening him with material or moral harm, or harming his property."

Since this crime is included in the penal code, it can be invoked before regular civilian courts, which could go some way towards satisfying the demands of human rights groups and serving the cause of justice.

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