Egypt's military takes aim at activists for anti-Christian violence

On Oct. 9, the Army appeared to target Christians who were protesting peacefully. Egypt's military prosecution has summoned two activists, raising fears it is seeking scapegoats for violence that killed some 28 people.

By , Correspondent

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    An Egyptian Coptic Christian lights a candle next to a wreath during a candlelight protest last week after sectarian clashes left some 28 people dead.
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Egypt’s military prosecution has summoned two Egyptian activists for questioning over the Army’s attack on a mostly Christian protest two weeks ago, in another indication that the Army is seeking scapegoats for the violence that killed as many as 28 people.

The two activists, Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bahaa Saber, were due at the military prosecutor’s headquarters today for allegedly inciting violence, but their summons was postponed until Sunday, after Mr. Abd El Fattah returns from traveling abroad.

The accusations against the two heighten concern that Egypt’s military is unwilling to take responsibility for or hold accountable the troops that, according to witnesses, ran over and shot peaceful demonstrators. The military’s repressive actions have raised concern about its willingness or ability to manage the transition to civilian government.

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“The whole thing is ridiculous,” Mr. Abd El Fattah said by phone from San Francisco, where he is attending a conference. “They committed a crime. They’re the accused. And the prosecutors are looking at us instead of at what actually happened.”

The move comes as Human Rights Watch warned that the Egyptian military’s failure to establish an independent investigation into the killings could suggest a coverup. The military announced shortly after the violence that military prosecution, not the public prosecutor, would control the investigation.

“The military cannot investigate itself with any independence,” says Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch. The military’s track record this year has been “absolute impunity,” she says.

No prosecutions

Not a single prosecution has been made in cases of military abuse and torture this year in which the Army promised investigations. Because the military is unwilling to hold its own accountable for the violence, “they're going to have to find these ‘hidden hand’ agendas, they have to find incitement elsewhere,” says Ms. Morayef.

They appear to be looking now to activists such as Abd El Fattah and Mr. Saber.

On Oct. 9, a crowd of thousands, mostly Christians, marched to Egypt’s state television building to protest at the government’s response to an attack on a church in southern Egypt. Witnesses said they heard shooting as they entered the square, and then saw Army vehicles driving into the crowd. They were captured on video seemingly deliberately targeting protesters. Witnesses also said military soldiers were shooting live ammunition into the crowd. As many as 28 people were killed in the attack, the majority crushed by military vehicles or shot.

Members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military council ruling Egypt, presented their own version of events, saying the Army had come under attack by protesters and blaming mysterious “hidden hands” with instigating the violence. They said soldiers were not armed with live ammunition and did not deliberately try to run over protesters.

Abd El Fattah, a well-known blogger and activist, says the military prosecution claims to have videos as evidence of the charges against him, but is not sure what the charges stem from. He arrived on the scene Oct. 9 after the military had attacked protesters, and saw the aftermath: clashes between the protesters and police, and also with mobs incited by state television to attack Christians. He helped carry a wounded protester, who had been shot in the foot. He then went to the Coptic Hospital, where many of the dead and wounded protesters were taken, and spent all night and the rest of the day there, he says.

Military, not civilian, trials

Since the revolution began, the Army has tried more than 12,000 civilians in military tribunals instead of in the civilian judicial system. The trials can last as little as five minutes and do not protect the basic rights of defendants, say rights groups.

Military leaders promised to limit their use before the events of Oct. 9. But Mona Seif, an activist against military trials, says the tribunals are continuing. Instead of being used for normal criminal offenses, they are now mostly reserved for political activists. (Editor's note: The original version misstated the timing of the military leaders' promise.)

The White House said Monday that President Obama, in a telephone call with Egypt’s de facto leader, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, urged the military leader to end military trials for civilians and lift the state of emergency. The Egyptian military receives more than $1 billion in annual military aid from the US.

When the military took power in February, it promised to lift emergency law and hold elections within six months, but stuck to neither promise. SCAF generals have said they will not hand over power until presidential elections are held, which will happen by the end of 2012 at the earliest.

Abd El Fattah – Ms. Seif’s brother – and Saber are not the only ones to be questioned in the Oct. 9 violence; 28 people have been arrested and charged with assaulting the Army, and others have been called for questioning, including one Coptic priest.

“From the beginning, the SCAF has been dealing with this matter as if they are not part of it -- it's not their fault and not their crime and they have been questioning other people in it,” says Seif.

Abd El Fattah says he’s not too worried about the charges against him – he and Saber were both arrested and imprisoned in 2006 for their anti-Mubarak activism. But he notes the difference between then and now. “During Mubarak's time, if they committed a crime, they would still try to cover it up, but at least they would not arrest us for the crime they committed,” he says.

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