Presidency 'lies' on the constitution, says No to Military Trials Campaign

Ahram Online, Sunday 23 Dec 2012

No to Military Trials Campaign retorts against presidency statement that claims the new constitution prohibits military trials of civilians, offering proof the wording was left ambiguous on purpose

No to military trials
File photo of Egyptian activists with stickers that read: "No to military trials for civilians" at a rally. (Photo: AP)

The No to Military Trials Campaign accuses Egypt's presidency of "lying" regarding the status of the military trials of civilians, in response to a statement released by Egypt's presidential assistant on foreign relations, Essam Haddad.

While Haddad's statement claims that the new constitution marks Egypt's progress towards universal Human Rights standards, including prohibiting the trying of civilians in military courts, the rights campaign condemned such a statement as completely false.

Commenting on Article 198 of the constitution, which Haddad claims prohibits military trials of civilians, The No to Military Trials Campaign retorts that not only does the article "leave broad discretion for military courts to try civilians, but it is purposely vague and leaves all options open for legislation."

Article 198 of the draft constitution stipulates that "civilians shall not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that harm the Armed Forces. The law shall define such crimes and determine the other competencies of Military Judiciary."

According to the No to Military Trials Campaign, the article does nothing to limit military jurisdiction outlined by the Code of Military Justice, which allows civilians to be tried if one of the parties involved in any given conflict is a military officer or if the crime takes place in an area where the military is deployed.

The rights group gave the example of the Qursaya Island residents who were recently tried using the military code of justice in a conflict over land. While the court of administrative justice affirmed in 2008 the islanders' legal right to live and farm the land, the military court recently charged 25 of the residents of encroaching on army property and of being present in a military zone.

"The draft constitution is worse than the 1971 constitution when it comes to military trials of civilians since the previous constitution was silent on the matter, and far worse than the 1954 constitution written more than 58 years ago – of which article No. 20 absolutely prohibited the trial of civilians before military courts or exceptional courts" the campaign statement read.

The campaign further criticised article 197 of the new constitution saying "just in case the legislative body actually decides to protect civilians from the injustice of military tribunals, article 197 ensures that the armed forces will continue to retain influence over any legislation related to the military via the National Defense Council which includes the Minister of Defense, the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, the Commander of the Navy, the Air Forces and Air Defense, the Chief of Operations for the Armed Forces, and the Head of Military Intelligence, among others".

Article 197 states: "The Council is responsible for matters pertaining to the methods of ensuring the safety and security of the country and to the budget of the Armed Forces. It shall be consulted about draft laws related to the Armed Forces. Other competencies are to be defined by law."

"What presidency representatives also fail to tell you in their press release is that an earlier draft of the constitution had an article [similar to that of the 1954 constitution] that clearly prohibited any military trials for civilians - without exceptions."

That article, the statement detailed, included the phrase "No person shall be tried except before the judge of their jurisdiction; exceptional courts are prohibited. No civilian may face military trial." However, the phrase "no civilian may face military trial" was completely removed from the new constitution.

"It should also be noted that this is not an isolated lie," they continued in their statement. "The presidency tries to sell the new constitution as 'progressive' when it is anything but that," the campaign pointed to the Human Rights Watch report on the matter.

"This comes after a revolution that called for justice and after more than 12,000 victims of military trials in a year!" they concluded.

The No to Military Trial Campaign is a movement created shortly after the armed forces took over power after Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down after 30 years as president. The movement's work mainly involves campaigning against the military trials of civilians (which became common since the military took over power) and the trials of civilians in exceptional courts. It also strongly campaigned for the retrial in civilian courts of all those sentenced by military courts since the revolution.

According to the presidential statement the new constitution not only prohibits military trials of civilians, it also guarantees equality of all citizens with no discrimination (Article 33), equal opportunity for all male and female citizens without discrimination (Preamble no. 5 and Article 9), prohibits exceptional trials (Article 75), prohibits any law that restricts core rights and freedoms (Article 81), affirms the right of access to information (Article 47), eradicates illiteracy in all age groups for males and females (Article 61), affirms freedom of the press and prohibits the ban of censorship on media (Article 48) and guarantees freedom of association (Article 50).

Several of these points mentioned by the presidency have also been challenged by other rights groups and activists. The Press Syndicate has condemned the status of the freedom of press in the new constitution. Human Rights Watch published a report mentioning its reservations on how far the new constitution protects rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, military trials of civilians and women's rights.

Egyptians voted on the constitution in a national referendum on Saturday with a 64 per cent voting 'Yes,' - in favour of enacting the constitution.

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