As they marked the first anniversary of violations against protesters by the military police late last month, members of the No to Military Trials for Civilians campaign lamented the ongoing trials of civilians in military courts.
The campaign was launched after military police violently dispersed a sit-in in front of the Cabinet, arresting protesters on Feb. 26, 2011.
In an interview with Bitterlemons, member of the campaign Amal Bakry weighs in on the continuing military, the arbitrary arrests, the disbanded State Security and the notorious virginity checks.
BI: What is the current legal framework for arbitrary and political arrests in Egypt?
Bakry: The “state of emergency” grants a wide scope for the authorities to act as they please. A few years ago they changed the military justice law to determine when to transfer civilians to military courts and who military rulings are to be applied to. [This allows for] the prosecution of anyone, of any prisoner of conscience or opponent of the regime. It allows [the authorities] to act freely and makes criticism extremely difficult. They used this against the Muslim Brotherhood; in 2005 they arrested a huge number of Muslim Brotherhood members and turned them over to military trials. Turning civilians over to military courts is a weapon used by the regime to take down its opponents.
Since the revolution, this has been applied on a larger scale. About 3,000 civilians were put to military trial during [former president Hosni] Mubarak’s rule. Since the army [was deployed] on January 28, 2011 and until today, there have been 15,000 military court cases. Typically, each case involves a large number of people: for example, the activists camping out in Tahrir Square who were arrested on March 9, 2011 and put on military trial consisted of about 200 people, and they were split into groups of about 30 for each trial. So when we say there have been 15,000 military cases, that doesn’t mean 15,000 civilians – it could be double that.
In September, the [Supreme Council of the Armed Forces] admitted in a press conference that there had been 12,000 military cases since the revolution, but said that only 6,000 civilians had been detained. The problem is that there’s no transparency, so we don’t know the truth.
Can you describe the conditions under which the arrests, detentions, and trials are taking place?
When the army [deployed], it began to arrest people randomly – anyone leaving Tahrir Square to get food might get arrested or someone on the street after curfew. We keep discovering bizarre cases, for example someone in his shop was asked by the military police “Are you so-and-so?” When he said no, they said, “Come with us so we can confirm that.” They took him and put him through a military trial and charged him with stealing someone’s identity.
The blogger Michael Nabil was taken from his home and spent about 10 months in prison because of his blog, “The people and the army are not one [hand].” He was tried without a lawyer or his family. We were outside the military court and they told us to go home because the trial was being delayed, and after we left they tried him at night and sentenced him to three years in prison.
There are cases that are laughable. There’s no particular logic to it – this is a message to the people that there’s no freedom like you asked for.
The trials are incredibly hasty. For example, if you’re arrested today, within two days you’re sentenced to five or 10 years. [Nineteen-year-old] Muhammad Ishaq was sentenced to 25 years. He’d just had surgery and was in bed at home and they took him and gave him a life sentence. I think he’s epileptic, too. He was charged with possession of a molotov [cocktail] or other weapon, as is the case with most people sentenced under false charges.
Testimonies have shown that numerous violations take place during arrests and within prisons. Families have testified to spending weeks searching for relatives in hospitals and here and there until finally discovering they were at such-and-such military prison. Then, when they arrived, they didn’t recognize their relatives for all the beating and abuse [the detainee] had been subjected to.
Can you comment on the infamous virginity checks?
The virginity checks took place during the breakup of the March 9 demonstration [last year]. A group of seven women were told to stand in two lines, the virgins in one and the non-virgins in another. Whoever claimed to be a virgin and turned out not to be one would be charged with prostitution. The women [who experienced this] were shocked and didn’t speak about it for a long time, until one finally spoke up. Then Samira Ibrahim filed a court case, and she was recently joined by Rasha Abdel Rahman.
A ruling on that was issued recently.
A decision was issued that virginity checks would not be carried out in prisons or by the army. But the case is ongoing; those responsible must be punished. It will be a victory when the offenders are punished and detained as an example. Many decisions are issued that have no real ramifications on the ground.
How do SCAF policies compare to those of the Mubarak era?
Mubarak dealt with opponents sometimes gently and at other times harshly. At first SCAF had zero tolerance – the huge numbers of military trials meant they wanted to clamp down and make people not open their mouths. Now, with the parliament in place, SCAF is more backstage, with a buffer zone between it and the people. SCAF thought it could take Egypt back to how it was before January 25, but has discovered it’s not that easy.
How significant were last March’s raids by the public on security headquarters and the uncovering of hidden detention cells?
Activists and citizens entered state security headquarters, but they [the security forces] were the ones who opened [the headquarters]. This was a game to make citizens believe they’d raided state security headquarters and that everything had changed and they shouldn’t be afraid. But the same officers are still there and, shortly after the revolution, activists started to be snatched off the streets again. All that happened is that the officers were given a vacation and then state security went back to business under its new name of “national security”. The revolution hasn’t taken power; an extension of Mubarak’s regime has taken power.
How do the military trials of civilians compare to the political trials taking place?
The people see [Mubarak’s trial] as a theatrical farce, and this has revealed SCAF’s true colors. SCAF hasn’t protected the revolution and there’s been no real change. No officers have been sentenced; they’ve all been declared innocent. Every day an officer is declared innocent, and this is preparation for declaring Mubarak innocent. If no one used violence against the people, then who did Mubarak give orders to? –This interview was first published by bitterlemons-international.org on March 1.