Human Rights Watch decried a law issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi last month, saying it will expand the reach of military courts and risk “militarizing the prosecution of protesters and other government opponents.”
In a statement issued Monday, HRW said the law “greatly expands the jurisdiction of military courts, giving them their widest legal authority since the birth of Egypt’s modern republic in 1952.”
On October 27, Sisi issued a law giving the Armed Forces more authority to protect public and state facilities. The law stipulates that any relevant crimes will be referred to military prosecution, and that “vital facilities” will be treated 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 by the law.
HRW said that since 2011, over 11,000 civilians have been tried in Egypt’s military courts, “which lack even the shaky due process guarantees provided by regular courts.”
“This law represents another nail in the coffin of justice in Egypt,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East and North Africa director. “Its absurdly broad provisions mean that many more civilians who engage in protests can now expect to face trial before uniformed judges subject to the orders of their military superiors.”
According to HRW, the use of military courts to try civilians violates the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which Egypt’s parliament ratified in 1984.
Many have argued that the new law contradicts Article 204 in the Egyptian Constitution, which 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.
According to HRW, this article is akin to Article 198 of the previous constitution, passed under Morsi administration, which also allowed military courts to put civilians on trial, in spite of protests by activists and some politicians.
“This new decree is pernicious and contrary to basic standards of justice,” Whitson said. “Egypt’s authorities should annul all the military court verdicts against civilians handed down since the new government took power, and President Sisi needs to act quickly to amend his decree.”
Sisi issued the law two days after a deadly bombing at a military checkpoint in North Sinai, which killed at least 33 soldiers. 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.
A few days earlier, a military court sentenced seven people to death, in the case known as the “Arab Sharkas Cell,” for their involvement in three violent incidents in March 2014 that left nine soldiers dead.
HRW quoted Ahmed Helmy, a lawyer for four of the men, who said that families of three defendants first sought his help in January, two months before the police say they arrested the men, suggesting that the authorities’ account of the raid was inaccurate.
“These three defendants disappeared separately in November and December 2013, months before the events they are charged with. They were kept in Azouli prison,” Helmy was quoted as saying.
Helmy, as well as one of the fathers of the defendants, said they refuse to appeal. He said his son told him, “You don’t hire a room from someone who stole your house.”