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Experts fear new law will expand reach of military courts

Experts fear that a new law giving the Armed Forces more authority to protect public and state facilities will broaden the jurisdiction of Egypt’s military courts.

The new law, issued on Monday by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, stipulates that any relevant crimes will be referred to military prosecution, Al-Ahram reported. This includes the treating of “vital facilities” as military institutions for the next two years, including electrical towers and stations, gas pipelines, railroads, roads and bridges, among others that are not defined in the law.

Presidential spokesperson Alaa Youssef said the law, which was issued following consultations with the Defense Council and State Council, as well as the approval of the cabinet, has been put in place to protect citizens and guarantee their access to public services.

Diana al-Tahawy, director of the Criminal Justice Unit at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), said the new law is “disastrous,” and will expand the jurisdiction of military courts to try civilians. 

If a civilian has an altercation with a military officer, or is accused of attacking military installations, they are brought before military courts, she explained. “The new law expands this to include all public facilities that the military considers ‘vital’, which is quite broad.”

Tahawy asserted that the new law contradicts Article 204 in the constitution, which limits the trial of civilians in military courts.

Article 204 stipulates that civilians should not stand trial before military courts except for crimes that constitute a direct assault on military institutions, military camps, military or border zones, military equipment, vehicles, weapons, ammunition, documents, military secrets, public finances or military factories, or crimes related to mandatory military service, or anything that constitutes a direct assault on military personnel because of their duties.

“The concern is that due process, which has already been compromised by regular courts, will come under greater threat,” Tahawy said, explaining that military prosecutors and judges are appointed by the Ministry of Defense and are not considered to be civilian.

Mahmoud Salmany, a member of the No to Military Trials campaign, said the Canal cities are already experiencing military justice, since the Armed Forces were deployed to protect public facilities there in 2013.

A state of emergency was imposed in Suez, Port Said and Ismailia by then president Mohamed Morsi in January 2013, to crackdown on dissent following days of unrest. While the military presence decreased in the following months, it intensified again following Morsi’s ouster in June 2013.

“We have the same experience in these three cities, but without the law,” he said, “and we already preempt its consequences.”

Salmany explained that any protests that have occurred in front of government institutions in the cities of Port Said, Suez or Ismailia have resulted in the referral of protesters to military court.

He cited the ongoing trial of 20 people who were arrested in Suez in August 2013, and referred to military court in July 2014. Their charges, he said, include assaulting military personnel, not attacking facilities.

The new law, he posited, will see thousands of civilians referred to military courts as long as military personnel are involved.

Salmany cited another case in Suez, in 2013, in which a civilian was referred to military court after he defended a woman who was sexually harassed by a military soldier securing a bank.

Facilities such as railroads, which are mentioned in the law, Salmany said, are usually blocked by people who are protesting their lack of access to basic services, like water, or who want to notify the government that there is a crisis. “So people like this will face military trials because they are demanding their rights, which are guaranteed by the constitution and which the state doesn’t provide,” he said.

Salmany suggests the law could also apply to universities, with students referred to military courts for protesting the release of their detained colleagues. “They are trying to kill any movement by anyone demanding their rights,” he said, questioning the “other” facilities listed in the law, and asking who will determine what they are.

“There will never be security and stability as long as people are facing injustice every day,” he added.

The new law comes two days after a deadly bombing at a military checkpoint, which killed at least 33 soldiers in North Sinai. Following the attack, Sisi issued a presidential decree stipulating that large swathes of North Sinai (including Arish and Sheikh Zuwayed) be placed under a three-month state of emergency, along with a curfew from 5 pm to 7 am each day, until further notice. Violations of the curfew are punishable by imprisonment.

In a statement at Saturday’s military funeral, Sisi blamed “foreign” elements for the attacks and vowed to take several concerted measures along the border with Gaza in order to combat militant groups within the peninsula.