Egypt’s military rulers told human rights advocates Monday that at least 7,000 civilians have been sentenced to prison terms by military courts since Hosni Mubarak was ousted — an astoundingly high number likely to fuel debate over how much the revolution has changed the country.
Advocates said the military promised to review the cases and vacate any improper guilty verdicts and commute the sentences. But the advocates voiced skepticism and demanded more information about civilians in military custody.
“This is not the first time they’ve promised,” said Mona Seif, a member of a rights group called No Military Trials that met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s ruling body. “We were offered no guarantees whatsoever.”
The use of military courts to try people who’ve been detained in anti-government protests in recent months is highly charged here. One of the complaints against Mubarak’s regime was that it silenced dissidents by quickly prosecuting them in military courts. The caretaker government that took over after Mubarak’s resignation has done little to alter the practice, however.
Seif said the military council told her group that 7,000 civilians had been tried in military courts since Mubarak resigned Feb. 11 and other cases were pending. But the council offered no details, Seif said. “We asked the council to provide the exact number and the names of any civilian held by military police,” she said.
Before Monday’s meeting, No Military Trials had demanded a halt to military trials of civilians, unless violations occur in military zones or facilities. It also asked that the government guarantee the security of peaceful gatherings and protests and release five oil field workers who were detained during a recent strike.
On Monday, the group announced a hotline to report cases of military violations, detentions or abuse.
Heba Morayef, a Cairo representative for Human Rights Watch who met with the council last week, said the military defended its use of military courts in civilian cases because of the heightened level of crime. She said it was hard to know the accuracy of the 7,000 figure the government cited.
“It includes protesters, activists, thugs, ordinary criminals and innocent passers-by,” she said. “They all received jail sentences.”
The role of the military in arresting political dissidents and peaceful protesters became a major topic after military police stormed into Tahrir Square on March 9, nearly a month after Mubarak’s resignation, and arrested 173 protesters who’d gathered there, including 17 women; military courts subsequently sentenced 123 of them to three to five years in prison.
After two months of protests, the military eventually agreed to retry the 123 and they all were released in May.
But complaints about the military’s use of emergency laws that have been in effect since the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat continue.
Last week, a conference on political prisoners hosted by the Egyptian Lawyers’ Syndicate and sponsored by the General Human Rights Committee and the Political Prisoners Rights Committee demanded the unconditional pardon and release of all political prisoners jailed during Mubarak’s three-decade reign.
“Political prisoners are still suffering injustice and discrimination after the January 25 revolution,” said Mamdouh Ismaiel, a member of the lawyers’ syndicate’s board of directors.
“Some activists were jailed in 1992 after suffering illegitimate and unfair military prosecutions,” he said. “They are still suffering behind bars, just as they did under the former regime.”