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Is That a Light at the End of the Tunnel? Or an Oncoming Train?

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Human rights groups including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have called on Egyptian military authorities for the immediate release of a peaceful pro-democracy demonstrator tried and convicted in a military court.

The organizations also charged that military courts should not be used to prosecute civilians.

The military should "halt detentions of peaceful demonstrators and end violence by soldiers against protesters and detainees," one of the organizations, Human Rights Watch (HRW), said yesterday.

"Egyptian military authorities are continuing one of the worst practices of the Hosni Mubarak government by prosecuting civilians in military tribunals," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Authorities have no business arresting people merely for participating in a peaceful demonstration in the first place."

In one recent case, on February 26, soldiers arrested at least nine people during demonstrations in and near Tahrir Square, in central Cairo. The Defense Ministry, in a March 1 news release, announced that it was investigating them for having "sneaked in among the youth," protesting in the square and "causing unrest."

In fact, on that day, a military court had convicted one of them, Amr Abdallah al-Bahari, 32, for assaulting a soldier and breaking curfew, his lawyer, Adel Ramadan, told HRW. Soldiers physically abused al-Bahari when they arrested him on February 26, a witness said.

Al-Bahari's brother, Mohammed, told HRW that soldiers arrested al-Bahari after midnight February 26 when the army raided Tahrir Square and a nearby street in front of parliament to clear the area of demonstrators. The brother said that the soldiers held al-Bahari incommunicado and refused him access to lawyers. Ramadan discovered al-Bahari's conviction while inspecting records at a military courthouse in the Nasr City district of Cairo on March 2.

In another case, Amnesty said it has received information on Maaty Ahmed Hamed Abu Arab who was arrested on February 3 in Tahrir Square while on his way to buy food. He was sentenced to five years in prison by a military court for breaking curfew and possession of a weapon. He, along with many others, is now held in Al Wadi Al Gadid prison, in the remote western desert.

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Another man, named al-Khatib, was detained at a military checkpoint on February 2 while he was traveling by taxi to a bus station to return home to the city of Suez. He said the military detained him for nine days and then brought him to a military prosecutor, along with 20 other detainees. The prosecutor told al-Khatib he had violated military curfew, a charge al-Khatib contested, saying that soldiers had stopped him at 1 p.m.

A military court session for al-Khatib and seven other defendants lasted 10 minutes, al-Khatib said. They were permitted neither to speak, except to deny the charges, nor to consult with court-appointed lawyers. Each defendant received a three-month suspended sentence, al-Khatib said, and soldiers then released them on the Suez-Ismailiya road near Hikstep, east of Cairo.

According to HRW, military courts have convicted dozens of civilians, all charged with criminal offenses, including possession of weapons, since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of Egypt on February 11, 2011.

Reports of military trials of civilians, in particular people accused of weapons offenses and other crimes, have surfaced in the past week. While there may be cause to detain and prosecute people suspected of committing crimes, military courts typically do not meet international fair trial standards, HRW said. In at least one case, a military court convicted detainees without the presence of lawyers. The court later dropped the charges.

The Supreme Military Court has announced numerous convictions in recent days, but it is not clear to what extent the prosecutions are related to demonstrations. On March 1 the Supreme Military Court issued a list of three convictions in the city of Ismailiya, and 15 in Cairo, for crimes including weapons possession, assault, and robbery.

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On the same day, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper published statements from the Supreme Military Court listing the conviction of 13 other men in Cairo on charges of carrying rifles, explosives, knives, and other weapons, "terrorizing" citizens and violating curfew. Their sentences ranged from 5 to 15 years in prison.

On February 27 the Supreme Military Court announced sentences for 28 people charged with vandalism, carrying weapons, and other crimes at some point during the unrest of the past month. Some of those sentenced had destroyed an ATM machine, tried to steal a taxi, and carried an automatic weapon, the statement said.

On January 29 a group of people in street clothes turned eight men from Mahalla al-Kubra, a textile factory town in the Nile Delta, over to soldiers in the town's Shobra al-Kheima neighborhood, Sayed al-Badrawi, an uncle of one of them, told Human Rights Watch.

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William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and elsewhere for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development. He served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy Administration and now (more...)

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