End military trials now

My upcoming article in TCS, with Enhanced Hyperlink Capability! Oh, the slow demise of print media…

This week, Maikel Nabil will have been on hunger strike for more than 80 days. Nabil, a blogger and activist who achieved the uncertain distinction of becoming the first blogger convicted under Egypt’s new military junta, is starving himself in protest at his sentencing by military tribunal. In April, Nabil was sentenced to three years’ imprisonment on charges of insulting the army. Now, he refuses to appear before a court that he and many others consider intrinsically unjust and lacking even the basic elements of a fair trial. In a recent blog post from prison, Nabil wrote: ‘I am a civilian person, I refuse to be tried before a military judicature or any other exceptional judicature, even any judicature lacking independence.’ In October, Nabil was transferred to Abbassiyah mental hospital, allegedly to ‘check his mental capacity’. Thus the Military Council displayed tactics not seen since Nasser’s era – locking up dissidents in mental hospitals on the pretence of concern for their health. Dr. Basma Abdelaziz, a psychiatrist who issued a statement on behalf of the General Medical Secretariat denouncing the treatment of Nabil, is now facing investigation.

In another prison, in another part of Cairo, Alaa Abd el-Fattah has just had his ’emergency’ detention order renewed, keeping him in prison for another fifteen days. Outside, friends, supporters, and family, including his heavily pregnant wife, campaign for his freedom. Abd el-Fattah is one of Egypt’s most prominent activists and this is not his first time behind bars; a recent letter, smuggled out from prison, eloquently describes his ‘return to Mubarak’s jails’, alluding to his previous imprisonment under Hosny Mubarak: ‘The memories come back to me, all the details of imprisonment; the skills of sleeping on the floor, nine men in a six-by-12-foot (two-by-four-metre) cell, the songs of prison, the conversations.’ The lack of fair trials is one of the many continuities between the former dictatorship and the current junta. The military tribunals in particular have become a major focus of campaigning by activists who see little change since the ‘revolution’ of the 25th January. According to the group No Military Trials for Civilians, 12,000 have been subjected to military trials since the junta took over in January, of which over 8,000 have been sentenced, 8 of which to death. So much for ‘the people and the army with one hand’. These are stories of families torn apart, futures ruined, children left without parents, by a body which claims to be the ‘defender of the revolution’.

The military tribunal system lacks justice, transparency, and fairness. Military trials are composed of military officers, not judges – as Maikel Nabil wrote recently, ‘you are an officer, not a judge no matter what names, titles or descriptions you were called.’ There is no right of appeal, except to a military Court of Cassation, but that too is made up of army officers. Defendants in military tribunals have a very short time to prepare their defence, without the chance to examine evidence and prepare witnesses, and their defence lawyer is often appointed for them – sometimes he, too, is an army officer. Military tribunals can reach a decision without consulting expert witnesses or forensic evidence. Leaving aside the systematic problems of the military trials, it must be borne in mind that the army itself stands accused of killing and injuring protesters in several incidents since the uprising, most notoriously the Maspero massacre of the 9th October. The fundamental injustice of this is clear in Abd el-Fattah’s case. Accused of incitement, assault, and vandalism in connection with Maspero, he is being tried by the very institution which all evidence suggests mowed down demonstrators with armed personnel carriers and killed them with live fire.

In campaigning against military trials, rights groups and activists face uncertainty in how far they can push the army. Under Egypt’s new military regime, the red lines are not yet clear, and criticising the junta carries with it a certain amount of risk. Nevertheless, the campaign is gaining momentum and support from within Egypt and internationally. Legal and human rights groups such as the one I work for, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, have been closely monitoring cases, sending lawyers to attend hearings and advocating for an end to such trials. The group No Military Trials for Civilians has been putting constant pressure on the military junta, including organising international solidarity demonstrations in alliance with the Occupy movement. On the 12th November, people in 23 cities worldwide, including London, New York, Budapest, Oakland, and Montreal took part in an international day of solidarity to protest military trials in Egypt and call for an end to international aid to the military junta (the Egyptian regime is the second biggest recipient of US aid, after only Israel).

Military trials – the court-marshalling of civilians – are contrary not just to the spirit of the ongoing Egyptian revolution but also contrary to fundamental human rights, including the right to a fair trial. They are clear evidence, as if more were needed, of the Egyptian military council’s lack of commitment to the rights and dignity of its people. Nabil, Abd El Fattah, and all other prisoners must be freed – but more than that, what is needed is an end to the injustice of the military trials which put them behind bars in the first place.


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