Egypt's ongoing battle over the practice of trying civilians in military courts appears to be winding down after President Mohamed Morsi formed a committee to study the files of all civilians to have faced military tribunals since last year's Tahrir Square uprising.
The committee is expected to request the release of 700 detained civilians this week, leaving the case in the hands of the president. It is a decision that will highlight an important aspect of Egypt's first civilian president.
With all eyes on Morsi’s position on the issue, the president issued a decree calling for the formation of the committee, consisting of officials from the interior ministry, the public prosecution, the military and the judiciary, along with rights activists and lawyers.
The ten-member committee is headed up by Judge Mohamed Amin El-Mahdi, former head of Egypt's State Council and member of the International Criminal Court. It also includes the assistant public prosecutor; the district state security prosecutor; the deputy interior minister for the prison authority; the deputy interior minister for general security; and the assistant head of the military prosecution.
It also includes several non-government figures, including Ahmed Seif El-Islam, founder of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre; Mohamed Zari, head of the Human Rights Centre for the Assistance of Prisoners; Islam Lotfy, former member of Egypt's Revolutionary Youth Coalition (RYC); and press syndicate member Ali Kamal.
The committee began its work on 8 July. It found that, out of 12,000 prisoners currently facing military trials, some 2,100 remained in detention. The rest were released within the past 17 months with little media fanfare.
The advisory committee’s first recommendation, expected to be announced Wednesday, is for around 700 civilians currently facing military tribunals to be granted amnesties.
The committee has laid down certain criteria to determine who can be safely released. Prisoners cannot, for example, have been accused of murder, rape, armed robbery or arms dealing. "We don’t want to release individuals who represent a danger to society," committee member Zari told Ahram Online.
Egypt's 'No to Military Trials' campaign has consistently called for releasing all political detainees. But the military prosecution has informed the committee that no one was detained in military or civil prisons during Egypt's military-run transitional phase from 11 February 2011 to 30 June of this year. Anyone who believes otherwise has been told to present a petition to the National Centre for Human Rights (NCHR).
Morsi's new committee recently called on Egyptians to send all complaints and petitions pertaining to military trials or political detainees to the NCHR. The committee has said it would later study these complaints.
The issue has long been the source of conflict between political activists and Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The latter justifies its use of military trials as a way to arrest thugs and maintain order. Many activists, however, believe that civilians should never be hauled before military courts under any circumstances.
"Military trials are used by the SCAF for political purposes against all Egyptians," Ahmed Ragheb, rights lawyer and member of the 'No to Military Trials' campaign, told Ahram Online.
In hopes of ending the dispute, members of Morsi's committee plan to come up with a way of differentiating thugs and saboteurs from bona fide political activists by specifying certain dates and actions, the RYC's Lotfy told Ahram Online.
Members of the 'No to Military Trials' campaign, who have been active since the SCAF assumed power following Mubarak's ouster last year, have voiced suspicions about the committee's sincerity.
"Morsi has the authority to free these prisoners; he doesn’t need a committee," Ragheb said. "I'm afraid it's just a public-relations exercise."
Moreover, many activists believe that the committee is handicapped – due to its strictly advisory nature – and lacks the authority to take any decisions. Committee members do have the right to visit prisoners, however, and obtain any relevant documentation.
Prominent columnist Abdel-Halim Kandil, for his part, stated on Wednesday on his Facebook page that Morsi had proposed freeing all detained civilians but that SCAF officials had refused the request.
There currently appear to be two crucial obstacles hindering the president from meeting activists' expectations. One is that protesters arrested during seminal demonstrations – such as those in Abbasiya, Mohamed Mahmoud, Alexandria and Maspero – are all being tried before civil courts. This means their release is outside the president's jurisdiction.
"Since their cases remain in civil court, only the prosecutor-general and Egypt's judiciary have the authority to release them," said Zari.
Meanwhile, anti-military trials campaigners have called on Morsi to issue a public apology as president of Egypt to all those facing military trials. The apology, they say, must guarantee that such violations will not recur.
They also demand the immediate release of all civilians sentenced by military courts and a statement from the president – in his capacity as commander-in-chief of Egypt's Armed Forces – regarding the fate of the '8 April officers' (a handful of army officers put on military trial for supporting last year's uprising).
They have further called on the president to establish an independent authority to compensate all civilians tried in military courts and to recognise them as "victims of the former regime."
Putting civilians before military courts was a common practice during the Mubarak era. It continued after his ouster, however, following the nationwide withdrawal of police and the resultant security vacuum that continues until now.
At a Sunday press conference, the 'No to Military Trials' campaign called on Morsi to issue a presidential decree ordering Egypt's justice minister to submit a request to Cairo’s Court of Appeal for investigations into violations against civilian defendants in military trials.
Yet despite Morsi’s decree, the Suez military court recently sentenced civilian Mohamed Gharib to three years in jail for protesting in Suez against the military's crackdown in May against demonstrators in Abbasiya. Seven others – all civilians – were slapped with six months in prison each.
While the exact number of civilians hauled before military courts since last year's uprising remains unknown, it was estimated at around 12,000 as of last September.
This figure was later confirmed by SCAF member General Adel Morsi, who said that around 11,800 civilians were still facing military tribunals. Other civilians have since been arrested, however, especially during November's Mohamed Mahmoud clashes and the Abbasiya clashes earlier this year.