Egypt's military rulers detain prominent activist. Is he a scapegoat?

Egypt's military rulers detained activist Alaa Abd El Fattah Sunday for allegedly inciting violence during a protest three weeks ago in which dozens were killed when the military violently attacked the crowd.

Nasser Nasser/AP/File
Coptic Egyptian demonstrators, one carrying a wooden Christian cross, set on fire an army vehicle during cashes with Egyptian army soldiers following a demonstration in Cairo, Oct. 9. An Egyptian blogger has been detained for allegedly inciting violence during the protest.

Egypt’s military prosecution detained a prominent activist Sunday, underlining the growing repression by Egypt’s military rulers as they increasingly restrict the freedom of expression and send civilians to military tribunals.

Alaa Abd El Fattah, a well-known activist and blogger, is accused of inciting violence during a protest three weeks ago where dozens were killed when the military violently attacked the crowd. The military appears to be using his prosecution – in a military tribunal – to find a scapegoat for the violence.

Mr. Abd El Fattah refused to answer the military prosecutor’s questions because he rejects the legitimacy of trying civilians in military tribunals, and because the military is implicated in the crime, said his lawyer.

Another activist, Bahaa Saber, also remained silent, but was released, though he is still charged. The two join more than 12,000 civilians who have faced military tribunals in Egypt since the uprising that overthrew former President Hosni Mubarak began in January. Activists say the trials deny basic rights of the accused.

“This is not just about Bahaa Saber or Alaa Abd El Fattah,” said Mr. Saber after he was released. “This is about all of the civilians who have faced military trials. We reject every one [of the trials]. Everyone is entitled to a trial in a civilian court.”

Deadly clashes

Saber is charged with inciting violence against the Army on Oct. 9, when the Army attacked a crowd of thousands of people protesting the government’s response to an attack on a church in southern Egypt. Abd El Fattah is charged with incitement, attacking the Army, and stealing a weapon from the military and using it. Both men deny all charges.

Videos taken during the protest show armored military vehicles driving into the crowd, running over protesters, and witnesses say the military shot into the crowd. More than two dozen people died, most crushed to death by vehicles or shot. The military generals ruling Egypt denied that soldiers purposefully ran over protesters or shot them, and blamed the violence on “hidden hands.”

Lawyers said the military prosecution today had a list of 12 people accused in the protest, including Abd El Fattah and Saber. At the top of the list was Meena Daniel, a Coptic activist who was killed by a gunshot that night and has subsequently become a symbol of opposition to the military’s repression.

Campaign against military trials

Abd El Fattah’s sister Mona Seif, who leads a campaign against military trials, said her family yesterday prepared for her brother's possible detention. He decided to boycott the military justice system and refuse to answer the questions, because “he saw that at this point in our battle against military trials for civilians, this was needed.”

Last week Abd El Fattah, whose wife Manal is pregnant and due to give birth soon, said he was not nervous about his possible detention. Both he and Saber were imprisoned in 2006 for their activism against Mubarak’s regime. “I've been through this experience before, so I'm not scared for myself,” he said. “I’m more worried about the revolution in general than about my personal safety.”

Abd El Fattah and Saber are not the first to refuse the military tribunal system.

Blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad, who was sentenced by a military court to three years in prison for writing a blog post critical of the military, has refused to attend his appeal hearings because he refuses the legitimacy of the military court system.

The court recently ordered Mr. Sanad, who has been on a hunger strike for more than two months, transferred to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His retrial – also in a military court – will take place Nov. 1.

President Obama, in a phone call to Egypt’s de-facto leader Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi last week, urged him to end military trials for civilians.

He also “reaffirmed the close partnership between the United States and Egypt,” according to the White House. The US gives more than $1 billion each year in aid to Egypt’s military.

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