Egypt shifts to military justice for civilians in post-Mubarak era

A 17-year-old was sentenced to death this week amid a wave of civilian cases tried by military tribunals in as little as five minutes. Under Mubarak, civilians rarely faced military tribunals.

By , Correspondent

A military court in Cairo this week sentenced to death a 17-year-old boy, highlighting a disturbing trend in post-Mubarak Egypt: trying civilians in military courts.

The minor, whose death sentence is illegal under Egyptian law, is just one of as many as 20,000 Egyptians who have faced military tribunals since late January, when the Army took on an expanded role in securing and governing Egypt. Military courts have been used almost exclusively for criminal cases in Egypt since then, essentially replacing the civil justice system.

“Military tribunals have become, rather than the exception, the norm,” says Soha Abdelaty, deputy director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “Everyone is susceptible to this.”

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The exception now is former leaders like Interior Minister Habib Al Adly, who was tried in a civil court and therefore could choose his lawyer and prepare a defense. Normal Egyptians, however, are mostly held incommunicado in military detention, denied the chance to choose their lawyers, and sentenced after trials as short as five minutes.

Some of those detained are protesters. But the majority – and those who may be most vulnerable – are those tried for criminal offenses, like the 17-year-old, who was convicted in a military tribunal along with three adults for kidnapping and raping a woman.

“I think the biggest concern is for the non-protesters,” says Mona Seif, who has campaigned against military trials since February. “All of the people who do not have networks of support that activists have, are being neglected....” The few leaders willing to bring up the issue, she says, talk only about political detainees.

Under Mubarak, military courts rarely used for civilians

Egyptian law allows the president to refer civilians to military tribunals under the emergency law, which has been in place for decades. But the conditions for such referrals, such the involvement of a member of the military, don't apply to the vast majority of current cases, say activists. Under former President Hosni Mubarak, civilians were rarely tried in military tribunals, though they were often brought before state security courts.

“People walking down the streets of Cairo are not supposed to be falling under the jurisdiction of the military,” says Ms. Abdelaty.

The Army unexpectedly took over the task of patrolling the streets when police withdrew amid protests on Jan. 28. The Army's initial use of arbitrary arrests and quick trials could have conceivably been the reaction of an organization trying to cope with a new role that they were unprepared for, says Ms. Seif. A wave of crime following the uprisings has complicated that work, but she does not condone their approach.

“Over the months, there are signs not just of them not being able to cope – [but] there are signs of real corruption that are very similar to what was [seen under] the state security and the former police institution,” says Seif.

Spurious charges

Those arrested are often accused of crimes they did not commit. For example, Seif says, protesters arrested March 9 around 4 p.m. were charged with breaking curfew, which did not begin until much later. The trials themselves rarely last longer than 30 minutes, says Abdelaty. An EIPR lawyer has seen judges refuse requests by military-appointed defense lawyers for more time to prepare.

The number of cases and the conviction rate is difficult to pin down, as the military prosecution is not transparent. The military has refused EIPR’s requests to make information about the cases publicly available. But a military official told the state-owned Al Ahram newspaper last week that military courts had seen 7,000 cases. Each case can include up to five defendants.

The death sentences issued this week will be appealed and could be overturned because, at least in the case of the minor, they contravene Egyptian law, said Abdelaty.

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