Military trials for civilians: The human cost

Bel Trew, Tuesday 22 May 2012

As hundreds stage a solidarity hunger strike Sunday for over 300 imprisoned Abbasiya protesters facing military trials, Ahram Online investigates the psychological impact exceptional courts have on their victims

Military attack
Military police attack a female protester, Tahrir Square, Cairo (Photo: Ahmed Ali/AP)

Egypt's military junta led a widespread crackdown on anti-military rule protesters in Cairo's district of Abbasiya on 4 May. What followed marked the single largest wave of arrests and detentions since the military assumed power in February 2011.

"The ruling military wants to see how far they can go with the people," says Salma Abdel-Gelil, 36, from the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign, regarding the military’s roundup and detention of civilians on 4 May.

"There was public division over whether the protest which sparked the arrests was a good or bad idea. The indecision explains the level of brutality they were able to unleash."

Over 300 civilians were arrested after military police violently dispersed a thousands-strong protest march to the Ministry of Defence in the Cairo district of Abbasiya in early May.

Hundreds currently face military trials, a practice which is illegal under international human rights law and which sees defendants summarily tried by military judges with little to no legal representation. 

In protest of abusive treatment, over 100 of the prisoners currently facing trial are staging an open-ended hunger strike. On Sunday, 460 activists, including presidential candidate Khaled Ali, joined them in a symbolic one-day fast.

The hunger strike comes after a perceived let-down from parliament, who was in the process of amending Egypt's 1966 Codes of Military Justice. The amendments permitted trying civilians under, supposedly more limited, prescribed circumstances. But it isn't enough. Activists object that the amendments are ineffectual.

Over 12,000 civilians, including children, have faced military tribunals in the last year, which is more than double the number during former president Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule.  Under Mubarak, military trials of civilians were reserved for high-profile political cases such as the 2008 conviction of former Muslim Brotherhood presidential contender Khairat El-Shater.

Military tribunals have been utilised since the Nasser era to deter political dissent, quell opposition and diffuse movements, but often, the real damage is a human one. 

"According to what we heard from different testimonies it is clear there is regular torture, at moment of arrest, interrogation and sometimes detention," says Dr Basma Abdel-Rahman, a psychiatrist at the Al-Nadeem centre, a civil society group which rehabilitates victims of violence.

“The main effect or goal of torture is to humiliate the person,” she explains. The torturer, she continues, aims to break the victim’s dignity, self-confidence, and will to resist in the long term as a means of control.

In the context of military trials, she adds, the purpose is also to make an example out of the victim in front of their communities.

Those that were detained by the military during the 18–day uprising were treated particularly badly, says Maha Mahmoun of the Hisham Mubarak Law centre, which represents many victims during the military tribunal process.

In addition, civilians arrested before August 2011 were also detained in military prisons, where, Mahmoun says, unverified reports show treatment of victims is more severe.

Adel Ramadan, a legal officer at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) working with military trials victims, described what happened to his cousin Muaty Abu-Arab.

Abu-Arab was one of the first protesters to be arrested during the revolution, on 3 February 2011. He was charged with "thuggery" and sentenced to five years in jail (although he served just one).

He was lucky, Ramadan explained, as the commanding officer came from the same village and so Abu-Arab had the usual “torture package” of beatings, verbal humiliation and sporadic starvation. However, Ramadan asserts, he witnessed some really extreme cases that “went beyond our ideas of torture.”

“People were covered in water and electrocuted, sometimes to death and thrown in the desert,” Ramadan said, relating his cousin’s experiences. The beatings, his cousin told him, were brutal enough to be fatal.

There are reported cases during the 18 days that people died in military detention, although this is impossible to verify. 

Even after the 18 days, torture continued even in high profile cases, such as Maikel Nabil, an internationally known blogger, who was arrested on 28 March 2011 for writing a post criticising the military.

He recounts being drugged three times to force him to speak and was eventually put in solitary confinement in a one metre-squared cell for two months.

“It had sewage on the floor,” he recalls. “As I spent more than two weeks with no access to light, I got skin diseases. I was unable to sit properly or walk. For two weeks I had no human contact at all.”

Torture of the Abbasiya detainees is one of the driving forces behind Sunday's hunger strike campaign.

One protester arrested by military police on 4 May, who wished to remain anonymous, reported how a fellow detainee in Tora prison was in shock from the arrest and could not speak. “The officer took his silence to mean he was being disrespectful so they used a water hose in his mouth; the guy was clearly suffocating.”

This is not the first documented case of water torture. In October last year, Essam Atta, 24 who was arrested on 25 February and sentenced in front of a military court, died in the same prison. Although the state autopsy says he overdosed, Atta's family noticed displays of abuse on his corpse and his cell mates claimed prison guards pushed hoses into his mouth and anus, drowning him.

Video and photographic evidence show arrests are often very violent. Abdel-Ahmed Karim described being beaten by 20 soldiers on his way to the 9 September 2011 protest outside the Israeli embassy.

“It was like an old movie, everything just paused,” Karim described, beginning to cry. “I was already sick. I had a high fever so I couldn’t stand up. They were hitting me everywhere with sticks.”

His ear was damaged, his leg limp and his hand was not working correctly after the beating, he said.

Karim was taken to the military prosecutor, in a building known as C28, where he described sleeping and waking to the sound of screams coming from neighbouring cells

“For 100 days I never saw the sun,” Karim added.

During the clashes, the wounded are more vulnerable to arrest because of their lack of mobility. At the defence ministry on 4 May, the military stormed a nearby state hospital, Ain Shams, and arrested injured protesters from their hospital beds.

“I got a call from a friend, Halim, who was trapped in Ain Shams hospital, where he had carried an injured colleague," explains Ola Shahba, from the Justice and Freedom Youth Movement. “The army got in by force, he said, and he was hiding under the bed in a doctor’s coat.”

Both were arrested, she added. Hakim, the injured friend, later reported to his lawyers that they had been electrocuted and that he was left in his underwear for two days.

The manner in which detainees are processed by military authorities contributes to the distress.

According to the No Military Trials for Civilians campaign and EIPR, military sentences are administered quickly often on trumped up charges. As Ramadan illustrated, by the time he found out his cousin had been taken by the military, Abu-Arab had already been sentenced to five years.

Nadia Hassan from No Military Trials for Civilians relates a case the group dealt with where a trial took place in a kitchen, due the lack of court space.

“The goal of any torturer is to increase the sense of helplessness,” explains Abdel-Rahman. “It adds to this feeling if you cannot defend yourself or properly appeal; in a military court the decision is final, which is a kind of torture itself.”

Karim, who claims he never even made it to the Israeli embassy protest, was charged with attacking the Giza security services and the Saudi embassy as well as burning the Zoo, a nearby park and Cairo University. 

“Victims frequently suffer from anxiety, insomnia and insecurity,” explains Abdel-Rahman. “Their memories intrude on their consciousness, and sometimes became an obstacle for them to perform a normal job.”

They will sometime experience “hyper-arousal” – where even pedestrian events such as the sound of a police siren can trigger memories.

Dr Aya Mohamed Kamal, who has a background in psychiatry, was detained for a few days during the recent Abbasiya clashes and recognised the threat of post-traumatic stress disorder. "We set up a peer support group in our cell to talk about our emotions," she said, explaining how she used her training to help fellow female inmates after they had been badly beaten.

“Those who are released are often not in a good state, they are psychologically damaged, become violent and sometimes suicidal,” Mahmoun explains.

Financial worries add to the problem, particularly as many victims come from impoverished backgrounds and are the breadwinners of their family. In the case of Abu-Arab, he not only lost his job as he was in prison for a year, but now has a criminal record, so he cannot find work. 

Groups like EIPR and No Military Trials for Civilians drafted changes in six specific articles in military law that refer to civilians, in a bid to have Parliament push the amendments through.

In particular, they wanted to add sub-bullet points to Article 4 protecting civilians who work in "non-military operations" that are still run by the army, such as factories and hospitals. 

Furthermore, they want to change Article 48, which states that any civilian involved in a dispute with a member of the military, which could include anything from a car crash to a land dispute, can be tried in a military court.

Another issue was changing the provisions, which allow children to be tried before military courts.

The groups also want to set up a special committee, with a Ministry of Justice-assigned judge, to run retrials of all civilians who have faced military courts. 

Parliament instead made minor changes to the 1966 legislation, related to limiting the power of the president to refer civilians to military courts.

Nevertheless the regular protests and social media campaigns spearheaded by these civil society groups have directed public attention to this pressing issue, which in many cases has forced the military to release victims.

The legal and psychological support offered to detainees and their families has also been crucial.

“The only way these trials can be stopped is through the pressure that human rights organisations are continuing putting on the military council." Ramadan concluded, adding that they have "cornered" the military into at the, very least, not abusing their own rules.

Protests like the solidarity hunger strike are one of these effective pressure campaigns.

"The proof is the way in which these tribunals are now being conducted. Before it was a five minute trial without evidence, now they at least have to provide witnesses.  We’ve got a long way to go, but this is something to celebrate.”

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