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Military Trials for Civilians: Tomorrow You’ll Be the Defendant

On March 9th, George Magdy Ata and four of his young relatives were coming out of the metro station in Tahrir Square while the military police were breaking up a sit-in by force. The five young men, all of whom have jobs in respected companies, were all arrested and were surprised to be referred to summary military trial along with dozens of demonstrators, on charges of possessing petrol bombs and attacking the military police. Amazingly, the military prosecutor presented ten petrol bombs as evidence against two hundred defendants, implying that twenty defendants used one petrol bomb. Even stranger, one of the young defendants, a man by the name of Roumani Kamel, is paralyzed from polio, which made it practically impossible for him to assault the military police.

After only twenty-four hours, the five young men were sentenced to three years in jail. After many weeks in military jail, and after their families pleaded and wept in the media and begged the authorities for mercy, the sentences were reduced to one year suspended (which puts them under permanent threat from the military prosecutor). Another Egyptian, Sayed Sobhi Abdel Hamid, works as a driver in Boheira Province and when his son obtained a diploma from the faculty of commerce he bought him a car to work as a driver. While his son was driving the car on the Rosetta-Alexandria road, he was surprised to find the road closed and an argument broke out between him and the head of the Edku police station. He was arrested, referred to court martial on a charge of thuggery and possessing a weapon, and sentenced to five years’ hard labor and five years on parole. Another man, 25-year-old Ahmed Abdel Rahim from Alexandria, was reported to police by a neighbor who said he was adding an extra story to his house without a licence. He was arrested, sent to court martial and sentenced to five years in jail. When his family complained he was tried again and received the same sentence a second time.

There are many such stories about civilians tried in military courts. Since Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11th, which is to say in only seven months, 12,000 Egyptian civilians have faced court-martial. Court-martialling civilians is a flagrant violation of the principles of justice, the rule of law and human rights, as well as incompatible with international agreements Egypt has signed. Everyone has the right to be tried before his or her natural judge, and the natural judge is a regular judge who operates completely independently of the executive. Such independence is not available in the case of military judge because the military judiciary is a department of the Defense Ministry, and a military judge, although he has studied law, is in the end an officer who is subject to orders and bureaucratic penalties and who receives bonuses from his superiors. Military trials are therefore an evident injustice and a violation of the rights of Egyptian civilians. The way military trials are conducted also does not provide the most basic legal guarantees. The families of the defendants have great trouble finding out where their relatives are being detained, usually they are not allowed to choose their lawyers and in many cases the military judge tries defendants in batches of five or ten. On top of that, the speed with which the trials are conducted cannot ensure justice. Is it just that a case should be heard in just one or two days, to be followed by a five-year prison sentence? Is it just that a civilian accused of adding an extra story to his house without a licence should be tried in a military court, while former Interior Minister Habib el-Adli and his aides, accused of killing hundreds of Egyptians, are tried before their natural judge and enjoy every legal protection? The military council’s insistence on referring civilians to military trials opens the door to many questions.

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According to reports by Egyptian and international human rights groups, military policemen have committed distressing and grave violations of Egyptians’ dignity and human rights. Why do the military police treat Egyptians with such cruelty? For the first time in the history of Egypt, 17 young female demonstrators were arrested on March 9th and the military police forced them to undergo virginity tests. The women implored the officers to leave them alone but they forced them to take off their clothes and lie down naked within sight of men who may have been doctors or just spectators. They were then photographed naked and their genitals were examined in front of those standing around. The testimony of the women has been fully documented in audio and video, with their names. This incident, distressing in itself, amounts to the crime of sexual molestation of Egyptian women whose honor the military police were supposed to protect rather than violate.

There are dozens of authenticated accounts by demonstrators who say they were insulted, beaten, and electrocuted when they were arrested by military policemen, who asked them to kneel down to humiliate them or forced them to lie on the ground while soldiers trod on their backs. I will confine myself here to evidence authenticated by the Nadim Center, from an Egyptian woman called Zainab who was arrested in Tahrir Square on the second day of Ramadan. “Many of them grabbed me by my arms,” she said. “While we were walking, one of them lifted up my blouse and started to hit me right on my bare skin and shout foul insults at me. It wasn’t the beating that hurt me, but the humiliation from the exposure of my body and the insults. For heaven’s sake, this was in Tahrir Square, where Egypt’s finest died.” Zainab was lucky: after beating and molesting her, some of the military police were moved to pity by the sight of her undressed and humiliated, and they interceded with the commander, who set her free. Why do the military police treat demonstrators with such brutality? I believe the military police are not much different from State Security in the way they see demonstrators. People who work in the apparatus of repression have a psychological need to think of their victims as hirelings, prostitutes, or enemies of the nation. People who carry out acts of repression have to distort the image of their victims in their minds in order to turn their conscience off, so that they can oppress and torture them.

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Do military trials help to stamp out thuggery? Clearly not, firstly because the ordinary law is quite enough to tackle all crimes and secondly because military trials are rarely used against the real thugs. Egypt has a serious law and order problem because the Mubarak regime released 23,000 convicted criminals from prison in order to frighten Egyptians and because so far the police force has not been purged of senior old regime officials, who now seem to be carrying out a plan to refrain from providing security in order to punish Egyptians for the revolution and make them have regrets about it. What have the military police done to solve the law and order problem? Almost nothing. The military trials that have targeted journalists, revolutionaries, demonstrators, and simple citizens have rarely come close to touching the real thugs. Thugs cut off the ear of a Coptic man in Qena Province but they have not been arrested. Also in Qena the train line to southern Egypt was closed by some people for ten days, and the military police did not catch any of them. Several churches were attacked and set on fire in Atfih and Embaba and there are video recordings of the attackers, but the military police have not arrested them. In fact, one bearded man appeared in a video inciting people to set fire to churches but the military police have not touched him. In the Abbasia events thugs attacked and hit demonstrators, killing Mohamed Mohsen right in front of the military police, who, as usual, merely looked on without intervening.

Amid these problems, some ask whether Field Marshal Tantawi’s orders to set free some detainees count as a step in the right direction. Yet Tantawi’s decision to pardon some of those sentenced, although a good gesture, is also good evidence that the military judiciary is not independent. Someone who can issue amnesties necessarily has the power to impose verdicts, and in a state governed by the rule of law, no one, not even the head of state, has the authority to obstruct the course of the law. Humanitarian gestures are not what are needed, but an end to the military trial of civilians, who should be tried before their natural judges.

So why does the military council persist with military trials? The only explanation is that the military council wants to retain an effective instrument of repression that enables it to control public opinion and silence its opponents. During the revolution Egyptians broke the barrier of fear and the police force has been performing poorly, so the military council found itself alone in the face of a public opinion that the revolution had awakened and that defiantly insisted on claiming its rights. The real aim in referring civilians to military trials is to make Egyptians obedient and submissive again: when every young man knows that taking part in a demonstration may cost him several years in military jail and every young woman knows that taking part in a demonstration will lead to sexual abuse and being stripped naked in front of men for a virginity test, then Egyptians will revert to fear and passivity, and will succumb to the military council, even if its decisions are mistaken or unjust. The military trials have so far not achieved their purpose because the spirit of the revolution is still burning and Egyptians are still determined to claim their rights, whatever the price.

Putting an end to the transfer of civilians to military courts is our common cause. The National Association for Change has called for a demonstration in Tahrir Square next Friday to stop the military trial of civilians. I believe that taking part in this demonstration is a personal obligation for every Egyptian. We may disagree in our political ideas or our visions of the role of religion in the state but we must not allow ourselves to disagree on the right of Egyptians to fair trials. One thousand people were killed in the Egyptian revolution and one thousand went missing, mostly killed and buried in places unknown. Another one thousand four hundred lost their sight to rubber bullets and five thousand were injured. After all these sacrifices, we cannot replace State Security with the military police. We cannot accept offenses to the dignity of Egyptians from any party whatsoever. The dignity of the most humble Egyptians is more important than the highest authority in the land. That’s what the revolution taught us.

Dear reader, if you do not speak out today against military trials and allow them to proceed against others, tomorrow you may be the defendant in the dock. You might just be walking down the street when a sit-in is broken up or a demonstration dispersed and you’ll find yourself arrested on ready-made charges—thuggery, using petrol bombs, assaulting the military police, or insulting the armed forces. Military trials for civilians must stop immediately.

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