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Thousands of Egyptian civilians tried in military courts: HRW

Human Rights Watch said it is a violation of international law for Egyptian civilians to be tried in military courts
Egyptian military tanks are positioned outside the police institute near Cairo's Turah prison (AFP)

Thousands of Egyptian civilians have been tried in military courts since President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi passed a law expanding military court jurisdiction in October 2014, Human Rights Watch reported on Wednesday.

The New York-based watchdog reported that at least 7,420 Egyptian civilians have faced trial in military courts over the past 18 months.

Human Rights Watch said they had documented 324 of the cases, with many of them involving huge numbers of defendants, including one that saw 327 people put on trial at the same time.

The list of cases, which was provided to Human Rights Watch by the local group the Egyptian Coordination for Rights and Freedoms, was described as documenting “for the first time the extent to which al-Sisi’s administration has used the military justice system to expedite its harsh crackdown on opponents”.

The list did not reveal the charges in each case. However, Human Rights Watch said a survey of approximately 50 Egyptian media reports since October 2014 showed “that most of those charged in military courts were transferred there because the broad provisions of al-Sisi’s law essentially put all public property under military jurisdiction, not because they committed crimes involving the armed forces”.

A significant number of those tried were charged with participating in illegal protests, as well as membership or support of the now banned Muslim Brotherhood group, which President Sisi unseated from power when he led a popularly backed military coup against Brotherhood leader and Egypt’s first elected president Mohammed Morsi in July 2013.

Among those tried in military courts have been 86 children, Human Rights Watch said, adding that students, professors and activists have also been swept up by authorities and put in front of military judges.

Many of those who have been tried and convicted in military courts claim to have been tortured, including the relatives of seven detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch.

Human Rights Watch said the mass trial of civilians in military courts “have violated due process guarantees and failed to establish individual guilt”.

“Apparently unsatisfied with tens of thousands already detained and speedy mass trials that discarded due process in the name of national security, al-Sisi essentially gave free rein to military prosecutors,” said Nadim Houry, deputy Middle East and North Africa director. “He has handed back to the military judiciary the powerful role it enjoyed in the months after Egypt’s uprising, when the nation was governed by a council of generals.”

Egypt has come under increasing criticism for its widespread crackdown against government opponents since President Sisi came to power nearly three years ago. Tens of thousands of people have been detained by authorities, and many of the country’s most prominent civil society activists have either been arrested or convicted of crimes resulting in lengthy prison terms.

The military courts which are trying thousands of civilians are run by the country’s Defence Ministry. The judges are all serving military officers and Human Rights Watch said “military court proceedings typically do not protect basic due process rights or satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law”.

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