President Hosni Mubarak and the regime have failed, for a while now, to answer a straight-forward question that democracy activists, human rights organizations, journalists and political activists have been marveling about over the past five months: why are civilians belonging to opposition groups tried before military tribunals?
Last February, the president decided to transfer 40 members of the county’s main opposition group to military tribunals. Members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested at dawn raids over a period of three weeks starting Dec.14 and were kept in custody. They are facing charges of money laundering and financing an outlawed organization. On Jan. 28, a court ordered their immediate release, stating that the accusations – put forward by state security – are groundless and politically motivated. Instead of adhering to the verdict, the security apparatus rearrested them. A few days later, President Mubarak decided to transfer their case to a military tribunal.
Despite the question marks this step provoked, officials never attempted justify the president’s decision. Rather, it was the government-affiliated newspapers which assumed that role.
The first justification was made by Al-Ahram journalist Ahmed Moussa, who said that Brotherhood members were transferred to military tribunals because their belief system does not recognize civilian courts “that are governed by man-made laws. This justification could not be even taken seriously for a couple of reasons.
First, it was less than a year ago when over 500 Muslim Brotherhood members including the well-known leader Essam El Erian were detained for periods reaching up to seven months after being arrested in a demonstration supporting judges in their call for judicial independence. During these demonstrations, the state security forces brutally cracked down on a judges’ sit-in, beating up one of the judges and seriously injuring him. The judge was physically abused after identifying himself to the police official, who responded by verbally insulting him. The incident was never investigated – a fact that clearly illustrates the regime’s disrespect of law.
The real paradox here is that it was civilian courts that acquitted the Muslim Brotherhood detainees only a few days before the president’s decision to transfer them to military tribunals, and three more times afterwards. And in each of these three times, it was the regime that refused to adhere to the judiciary. And yet the government justification for transferring Muslim Brotherhood members to military courts is that they do not “believe in the “civilian judicial system.
And even if that bizarre assumption is true, the justification can’t be taken seriously. In a democratic system, where there is a clear separation between the different branches of the state, citizens stand before their natural judge, whether they like it or not. It is not enough for a person to say that he does not believe in the capital punishment in a country that applies it to escape execution if he kills someone.
The state should not be catering for the suspects. The charges put forward by the state security prosecutor were taken to a civilian court, which found them groundless. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood’s members recognize the court or not is not the question, but rather whether or not the court is recognized by Egyptian law?
The other justification, again put forward by Al Ahram editors, and some of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) officials, was that the civilian courts take too much time to reach a verdict, while the procedures in military tribunals are faster. This rationale could not be taken any more seriously than the first.
Parallel to the Brotherhood case, in a “coincidence that occurs every time there is a large-scale crackdown on the group, another case was being investigated by the state security prosecutor. An Egyptian young man accused for spying for Israel made the headlines. The case was examined by the natural, civilian courts, and the suspect was sentences to 15 years in prison.
Another case involving spy started in late March, and the verdict was pronounced a few weeks ago; he was sent to 25 years in prison. Clearly, espionage cases are far more complicated than money laundering as the former involves international investigation. If civilian courts could reach a verdict in these cases in that period of time, then reaching a verdict regarding the Muslim Brotherhood case is equally achievable.
Also, the justification is flawed in two other ways. It implies that there was a pressing need to reach a verdict in an exceptionally short time, yet does not present reasons for this need. This same excuse was used to send members of militant radical Islamist groups to military tribunals in the early 1990s. The time constraint in the latter case is understandable, but does not necessarily justify the transfer to military tribunals. But in the case of non-violent political opposition, and accusations that are unrelated to security issues, there is no pressing time constraint, and therefore military tribunals are neither understandable, nor justifiable.
Military tribunals do not guarantee fair trials for obvious reasons. The judges, who are army officers, are obliged to follow the orders of their commanders, namely the president and the minister of defense. Despite recent “reformist amendments for the laws governing military tribunals, the president is now empowered to refer any citizen to a military court. The international community should be aware by now that the Egyptian style of reform does not have any real will to reform, and is only beautifying its image by changing the headlines, while the devil lies in the details.
These amendments were introduced under increasing pressure from different local and international bodies opposing the transfer of civilians to military tribunals. It was a desperate attempt from the regime to divert attention from the real question, which is why transfer civilians to military tribunals, to another question on whether the amendments enough to guarantee a fair trial.
Having witnessed some court sessions and researched the issues thoroughly, democracy and human rights activists are well acquainted with the lack of adequate judicial independence in military tribunals. Therefore, debating the issue is a waste of time and effort that would lead democratic reform in Egypt nowhere. The case was transferred to military tribunals to “control the verdict, and this is one thing the regime does not want to admit. Therefore, democracy and human rights activists should continue to pressure for an answer for this very simple question that continues to be posed by young sons and daughters of detainees.
The Egyptian regime’s crackdown on opposition has gone beyond everything. The same “civilian judge sent Saad Eddin Ibrahim and Ayman Nour to prison, and froze the assets of Muslim Brotherhood members. Military tribunals sent MP Talaat El Sadat, late President Anwar El-Sadat’s nephew, to prison, and are now being used against the Muslim Brotherhood. The only way out of this democracy crisis is to pressure the regime to refrain from using extralegal measures to silence its political opposition.
Ibrahim El Houdaibyis a board member of ikhwanweb.com, the website of the Muslim Brotherhood. He wrote this commentary for Daily News Egypt