Activists Say Egyptian Military Continues Repression
April 7, 2011
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson
When Egypt's revolution drove former President Hosni Mubarak from office, the military stepped in to oversee the country's transition to democracy. But the revolution's leaders and activists fear that move has backfired.
They accuse the military of continuing the repressive practices of Mubarak's much-hated security forces and replacing Egypt's legal system with its own brand of justice.
A 'PARALLEL LEGAL SYSTEM'
Almost daily, relatives and supporters of detained Egyptians come to an imposing military court compound in a Cairo suburb.
Here and at other army courts around the country, military policemen serving as judges and prosecutors have tried more than 5,000 cases since February. Military officials say the goal is to curb the growing crime wave across Egypt spurred by the disappearance of police officers from the streets after the revolution.
But activists say that doesn't excuse bypassing civilian laws and courts, especially now that Egypt's police force is back on duty.
"The army is sending a very negative message now by creating this parallel legal system, which effectively undermines the integrity of the ordinary judicial system," says Hossam Bahgat, who heads the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. The group is tracking military detentions and trials in Egypt.
"They are not equipped to deal with such a large number of cases," he says, "and that has resulted in speedy trials with inadequate legal defense and without access by the defendants or their lawyers to the case files or the evidence against them in the vast majority of cases."
Bahgat and others complain that the military, which already faces widespread criticism over earlier allegations of torturing and sexually abusing detainees, does not follow Egyptian laws regarding the rights of the accused.
The critics add that convictions and sentences in military courtrooms are far more frequent and severe. Appeals are nearly impossible. Defendants like T-shirt vendor Ahmed Mursi are tried and usually convicted in trials that last only minutes.
Mursi's mother, Mona Hussain Hassan, lives in the family's modest apartment in a southern suburb of Cairo. She pulls out letters she has written to the military and human-rights groups to try to make sense of why her son was sentenced in March to two years in prison.
Hassan says all her son did was argue with a rude man at a checkpoint near their home. That man turned out to be a plainclothes police officer.
Hassan says the officer handed her son over to the soldiers and told them he was carrying a knife, a claim Mursi and friends who were with him deny. His mother says no knife was produced at his brief trial.
The military judge nevertheless convicted her son.
"I tried to ease his worries by telling him it was the military, and that his trial would be fair," she says. "But the trial was not just at all. How could they treat him like this?"
Activists say equally disturbing is the military's apparent decision to start going after its critics. Eleven days ago, they arrested blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad at his home. The 25-year-old law student had posted a blog entry arguing that the military was against the revolution and not with the people, as it claimed.
One of his lawyers, Adel Ramadan, says his client was charged with insulting the military and harming state security. He faces up to three years in prison on each count.
Aalam Wassef, founder of a social network for academics who has posted videos criticizing the Egyptian military on the Web, says he fled the country a few days after Sanad's arrest for fear he, too, might be nabbed. He says he will continue his critiques on the Web from abroad.
"The military always had this reputation of integrity, of patriotism," Wassef says. "So as long as we keep the pressure and we're extremely bold about exposing them, they will have to back off. They have no choice."
Back in Cairo, Sanad's father, Nabil Sanad Ibrahim, is not convinced the military will back down that easily. He adds that his son's trial can't possibly be fair if he's being judged by the very people he's accused of insulting.
A verdict in Sanad's case is expected Sunday.