Egypt: 7,400 civilians tried in military courts
April 14. Beirut: Military courts have tried at least 7,420 Egyptian civilians since October 2014, when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi decreed a major new law that expanded military court jurisdiction.
A list of civilians tried in military courts, provided by the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, an independent legal and human rights group, documents for the first time the extent to which al-Sisi’s administration has used the military justice system to expedite its harsh crackdown on opponents.
Most defendants were sentenced after mass trials that violate fundamental due process rights, and some courts relied on confessions extracted under torture, relatives of the defendants said.
The list provided to Human Rights Watch documented 324 cases, identifying defendants by name, sex, home governorate, and case number, and in many cases by profession and age. The largest case involved 327 defendants.
The list did not describe the charges in each case. But a Human Rights Watch survey of about 50 Egyptian media reports since October 2014, describing the referrals of thousands of people for military trials, indicates that most of those charged in military courts were transferred there because the broad provisions of al-Sisi’s law essentially put all public property under military jurisdiction, not because they committed crimes involving the armed forces.
The media reports indicated that a large number were accused of participating in illegal or violent protests, as well as membership in or support for the Muslim Brotherhood. Since July 2013, when the military removed Mohamed Morsy, Egypt’s first freely elected president and a former Brotherhood member, Egyptian judges have sentenced thousands of members of the group.
These military trials have swept up at least 86 children, as well as students, professors, and activists, including individuals who were forcibly disappeared and allegedly tortured. Military courts have handed down 21 death sentences since October 2014, though a lawyer with the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms said that none have yet been approved by the Supreme Military Court of Appeals.
In May 2015, six men were hanged following verdicts handed down by a military court in August 2014, despite evidence that some had been in detention at the time of their alleged crimes.
Thousands of civilians were retroactively referred to military trials for crimes they allegedly committed before al-Sisi imposed the law. Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of the civilians referred for military trial faced charges that stemmed from the violent unrest that broke out in mid-2013 after the military removed Morsy from power.
The list identified 1,468 defendants from Minya governorate – the most from any one governorate – where violent mobs attacked churches and Christian-owned homes and businesses following Morsy’s removal and the subsequent mass killing of Morsy’s supporters by security forces in August 2013. The media reports reviewed by HRW corroborated the retroactive referral of hundreds of Minya residents to military trials for participating in the 2013 violence.
Another military trial involves Sohaib Sa’ad, a 22-year-old man arrested on a Cairo street on June 1, 2015, as he walked with friends. The authorities forcibly disappeared Sa’ad for four weeks, during which time he alleged he was tortured. Sa’ad, who used to film protests and sell the footage to news media, had been charged in a prominent case targeting three journalists from Al Jazeera and was detained from January 2, 2014, until February 12, 2015, when he was released pending retrial.
On July 10, 2015, almost two weeks after he reappeared, the Defense Ministry published a video on YouTube announcing the arrest of Sa’ad and others in what it said was “one of the most dangerous terrorist cells belonging to a special operations unit of the terrorist Brotherhood organization.” The video showed Sa’ad and several others confessing their alleged roles in the group. The court hearing the Al Jazeera case sentenced Sa’ad and the other defendants to three years in August 2015, and on April 3, 2016, the military court hearing the terrorism case against Sa’ad and 27 other defendants postponed its verdict to April 24.
Such mass trials, in both Egypt’s regular and military judiciaries, have violated due process guarantees and failed to establish individual guilt. In 2014, a criminal court judge issued 220 death sentences against defendants accused in mass trials of participating in Minya’s 2013 violence. In February 2016, a military court mistakenly handed down a life sentence to a 3-year-old child following a mass trial against 116 protesters from Fayoum governorate, whose case was transferred to a military court under al-Sisi’s law.
Egypt’s military courts are administered by the Defense Ministry. The judges are serving military officers. Military court proceedings typically do not protect basic due process rights or satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law. Children can fall under the jurisdiction of military courts, which HRW opposes under any circumstances.
The use of military courts to try civilians violates international law, including the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt ratified in 1984. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has stated that civilians should never face military trial.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations body charged with interpreting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, has stressed that “the conduct of criminal proceedings against children within the military justice system should be avoided.” Egypt ratified the convention in 1990, making it one of the earliest state parties to the convention.
“The referral of so many civilians to military courts is an attempt by Egyptian authorities to provide a judicial rubber stamp for their crackdown,” Houry said. “But these military trials – often involving hundreds of civilians at a time – are neither fair nor credible.”
The Oslo Times