Egypt’s Military Courts: Polluting the Arab Spring

Smita Shah explains how, despite the moves towards democracy in the Middle East, Egypt’s military courts continue to violate fundamental human rights.

In Egypt, despite animated discussions about revolution and counter-revolution, speculation about Hosni Mubarak, hope of political reform and possible September elections, the wheels of injustice continue to turn. Amnesty International has reported on the inhumane treatment meted out to those Egyptians agitating for change in the 25th January revolution.  And many protesters who survived violent arrest, torture and ill-treatment have found themselves facing trial before military courts, despite not being members of the armed forces.

Some of the accused have been children. Recently, in a shocking judgement, an Egyptian military court sentenced a 17 year old and 3 adults to death for kidnap and rape. Decisions such as these are being made in contravention of both the country’s domestic laws and its  international human rights obligations. Even more disturbing has been the case of a 15 year old processed before the military courts, where his court-appointed lawyer did not raise his age as a concern or question the court’s jurisdiction to try a juvenile defendant.

Adel Ramadan, from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has been representing a number of defendants before the military courts. He told Human Rights Watch that, based on court rolls and case numbers, military courts handed down over 5,000 sentences across the country between February 11 and the middle of April. this year The military courts typically handle groups of between 5 and 30 defendants at a single trial, with a trial lasting  between 20 and 40 minutes. Interestingly, the political elite who made up Mubarak’s cabinet face the prospect of trials before the civilian courts.

Proponents of military tribunals argue that they can be assembled speedily in hostile circumstances, are essential for military discipline and are subject to the chain of command.  These are, of course, all factors that support their use when trying members of the armed forces who commit crimes in the course of their duties. However, it is equally obvious that such courts are not suitable for civilians.

So we see protesters, dissidents, political opponents and just those who have been plain unlucky facing a court hand-picked by the executive. The “judges” are serving officers of the armed forces, lacking any legal training and willing to take account of evidence obtained under torture or other forms of ill-treatment. They hand down harsh sentences and their decisions are not subject to appeal.

Egypt is not alone in putting civilians on trial before military tribunals, Turkey, Peru, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo have all prosecuted or continue to prosecute civilians in the military courts. This has often take place despite the existence of civilian courts that are more than capable of trying the defendants. The position under international law could not be clearer. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has stated, in a case involving Algeria, that States need to have exceptional circumstances, and afford defendants genuine fair trial guarantees, if they wish to put civilians on trial before military courts. And Egypt has itself been consistently warned, by the UN and numerous international human rights NGOs, about its use of military courts. The UN Special Rapporteur on Terrorism has recently sought to remind Egypt of the view of the Human Rights Committee, which in 1993 stated that “military courts should not have the faculty to try cases which do not refer to offences committed by members of the armed forces in the course of their duties”.

It is tempting for the new Egyptian administration to leave intact the system of military tribunals, pleading necessity in the fight against terrorism.  But it is not enough to simply hold to account those who are responsible for human rights violations; the institutions that permit the transgressions must be dismantled. There is no space for compromise. The unfair trials must be immediately suspended and those civilians who are properly charged with criminal offences should be tried before ordinary civilian courts. Anything less would amount to a betrayal of the brave citizens who risked so much for a new Egypt.

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