New batch of arrests in Tahrir Square to add to the ones suffering in military jails

Zeinab El Gundy, Tuesday 2 Aug 2011

Amidst security arrests in Tahrir Square to end a sit-in, the issue of whether they will be tried in unjust military courts, like hundreds, if not thousands of others, resurfaces

No For military trials campaign in Tahrir
No For military trials campaign in Tahrir

On 1 August the army and police forces dispersed by force the July sit-in at Tahriri Square, with over 100 citizens reportedly arrested, including old men, journalists and reportedly even children. Major General Ismail Etman of the morale department said on TV that these citizens were not going to be prosecuted before military courts but rather in civilian procedures.However, the day after detainees are still at one of the military camps in Cairo. Major General Etman stated that security forces arrested only "thugs."

Several political powers announced that they will march after the taraweeh (special Ramadan prayers) every night until the detainees are released.

A case in point with a happy ending

On 17 July, 2011 a military court acquitted Mohamed Adel of criminal charges after five months in Al Wadi Al-Gadid prison. Adel, along with other protesters, was protecting the Egyptian museum in Tahrir Square on a violent 28 January when he was arrested by the military police. Adel was accused of “thuggery” and breaking the curfew that came into effect that day without much lead time.

He found himself standing before a military court that sentenced him to five years in jail in the second case in a military court for year 2011.

Mohamed Adel’s mother, Nariman, an interior designer, published a plea in the press asking Field Marshal Tantawi to pardon her son, who is not a thug, but an accountant working in Citibank. After that plea the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced in its communiqué no.29 in March 2011 that the procedures of Adel’s trail would be revised.

On 17 July, 2011 the court acquitted Mohamed Adel of criminal charges and although he was still found guilty of breaking the curfew he was released and is currently back home.

Unfortunately, says Mona Seif, an activist and one of the founders of the No to Military Trials campaign, there are probably hundreds, if not thousands, like Adel facing military trials. 

How many detained don't have happy endings?

Mona Seif summarised the No to Military Trials campaign: How many Mohamed Adels were prosecuted in military courts?

Based on estimates by human rights activists there are no less than 10,000 civilians facing or that have faced military trials. Seif states that Adel’s case was the only recorded case where the appeal was approved.

The campaign has requested, along with several human rights organisations, for SCAF to announce the number of civilians that have been tried or have been waiting trial in a military court since 28 January: the day police violently tried to end the peaceful demonstrations on the third day, and which later turned into a full-blown revolution.

In response to the demands of the 8 July protests and the Tahrir sit-in that followed, SCAF issued communiqué no.68. The communiqué reads: The military trials are only limited to: those accused of acts of “thuggery,” threatening citizens with guns and other weapons, rape and attacking security forces. 

A bigger problem than the military trials is that prisoners’ families have been complaining their loved ones are being tortured and abused in the military prisons.

In a meeting with a group of Egyptian intellectuals on Sunday 31 July, chief of staff and member of SCAF Sami Anan said that there were no detainees mistreated by the military or even imprisoned, only thugs faced military trials.

Still, this raises a question: why aren’t these detainees not referred to civilian courts, especially when the military court handed out tough sentences based on civilian law anyway?

Right after 28 January, 2011 when prisoners were let loose, police stations burned down across Egypt, and the police were either attacking protesters in Tahrir or disappeared, many Egyptians initially welcomed the military courts as a tool to restore order in the Egyptian streets. Military trials issued tough sentences quickly.

Despite that constitutional article no.21 implies that each citizen should stand before the appropriate court; i.e. the military before the military court and the civilian in front of the civil courts - military trials continue. On 18 July, 2011 the administrative court in Qena issued a court order to stop military trials, yet Major General Adel Morsi, the chairman of military judiciary authority refused it. He said that military courts are working within their jurisdictions and in accordance with civilian law. The chairman cited the complicated second article of the constitution regarding changes to legalistive provisions, arguing that the court's ruling changes current legislation and that it doesn't have the authority to do so.

Among the demands common amongst the political forces that were supposed to protest on Friday, 29 July - which was overwhelmed by Salafists - was a call to stop trying civilians in military courts.

Activist Ibrahim El Houdabi told Ahram Online that he thought - along with the not less than 26 political groups from the left, right and centre – that prioritising this demand in the “Friday of Unity” would send a strong message to the SCAF. After the debacle of the Friday 29 July where the Islamists did a bait-and-switch and called for sharia, making it clear that they were going to push their own agenda despite any unity agreements, the fight to get civilians out of military prisons and biased military trials seems forgotten. Political fights, instead, seem to be taking centre stage.

Media and presidential candidates on the subject

The campaign needs media exposure, much more than political support from political powers or potential presidential candidates, says Mona Seif. The campaign began to become more known to the public after being featured on Tahrir TV. “People from Rashid and other areas in Egypt began to head to the campaign’s tent in Tahrir Square to ask for help for their sons,” Seif says, supporting her statement.

Up until then the campaign’s main focus was in greater Cairo and despite the fact that it began small  and depended on volunteers and lawyers, the No to Military Trials campaign began to expand in the country to include a group in Alexandria.

Recently the potential presidential candidates began to voice their views on military trials. Potential presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei wondered on his Twitter account how it is possible that Egypt is having a revolution when civilians are being prosecuted in military courts.

Another possible presidential candidate, Hazem Abu Ismail, pointed out the hypocrisy of how civilians were tried in military courts while the old regime icons were sent to civilian courts in a famous clip that became a viral online and gained the Islamist candidate much support.

Human rights groups and SCAF

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have already criticised SCAF for trying for civilians in their military courts.

The SCAF members also met with a delegation from No Military Trials campaign, made some promises to review the situation, and yet the trials continue. Actually, SCAF members deny both; prosecuting protesters or young revolutionaries in military courts and abusing them in military jails. 

The campaign thus far managed to help protesters detained in clashes like 9 March, 9 April and the incident in front of the Israeli embassy, but there are still other protesters detained, despite the insistence of SCAF members there are no protesters being processed through military courts.

The No Military Trials campaign started shortly after the protesters at the Cabinet headquarters on 25 February were arrested, among them artist Amr El-Bahairy who was sentenced to five years on charges of “thuggery.” El-Bahairy’s lawyer appealed.

But Mona Seif says this about appeals: “The appeal procedures are slow and take too much time compared to the original sentencing, which is relatively quick.” El Bahairy was transferred from the military prison to unknown location, according to his family.

On 3 February, 2011 young, 24-year-old El-Maati Ahmed Abu El Arab left Tahrir Square to get some food for his family only to become a missing for two weeks before his family found out that he was arrested by military police and was sentenced by a military court to five years in jail. El-Maati is currently at the now infamous Al Wadi Al-Gadid prison.

It is not just protesters or revolutionaries that have testimonies on the No to Military Trials websites. Regular civilians have stories in their “Tahrir Diaries.”

In an impactful moment, when Mona Seif was asked if she would defend someone like Ahmed Nazif (the former prime minister accused of corruption) or try him in a military court, she replied: “No civilian should be tried in military courts.”

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