Egypt: No justice for 49 facing trial before emergency court

The trial of 49 people before an emergency court for alleged involvement in the violent protests of 6 April 2008 in the city of Mahalla is due to resume on 6 September.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Egyptian authorities to stop trying individuals before special emergency courts that flout basic guarantees for fair trial.

On 5 April 2008, the government banned all demonstrations in advance of a general strike planned for 6 April in support of industrial action by textile workers in the city of Mahalla north of Cairo. Thousands of members of the police and security forces were deployed in Mahalla, Cairo and other cities.

The industrial action was called off after negotiations with officials and under pressure from the government, but violent protests broke out in Malhalla against the rise in the cost of living. At least three people, including Ahmed Ali Mabrouk, a schoolboy, died after being shot by the security forces and dozens were wounded due to excessive use of force. Around 258 people were arrested during the clashes and later released without charge.

The 49 defendants are being tried for a wide range of charges, including: assembly of more than five people with the aim of disturbing public order and security; deliberate destruction of public and private property; ransacking and theft; violent resistance and assault on police officers during the exercise of their duties; and illegal possession of firearms. If convicted they face up to 15 years’ imprisonment.

The defendants are the first to be tried by an emergency court following the Egyptian authorities’ renewal of the state of emergency in May 2008. Emergency courts regularly use evidence obtained under torture and other ill-treatment to secure convictions, and their procedures routinely fall short of the basic guarantees for a fair trial. Judgments by emergency courts cannot be appealed against and become final after ratification by the President.

The trial, which started on 9 August before the (Emergency) Supreme State Security Court in the city of Tanta, north of Cairo, has been postponed upon the request of the defence lawyers in order to allow them to review the case files. The court also acquiesced to order expert examination of the damage to property allegedly caused by the defendants, and ordered the arrest of those defendants previously released on bail by the public prosecutor. When police officers later went to proceed with the arrests, they arrested relatives of the defendants who were not at home and took them into custody as “hostages” so as to force those wanted to surrender.

Torture and threats of sexual abuse

The 49 people who are facing trial were arrested after the clashes, between 13 and 18 April 2008. After their arrest they were blindfolded for up to nine days. Many of them said that while they were being held at the State Security Investigations offices in Mahalla and later in Cairo they were beaten, tortured with electric shocks and threatened with the sexual abuse of their female relatives.

When they were brought before the Public Prosecutor on 21, 22 and 23 April, their lawyers complained about the torture and other ill-treatment inflicted on their clients. No independent investigation is known to have been opened as a result. The main evidence used against the defendants are the confessions, allegedly extracted under torture, that they had thrown stones at the police, as well as the testimonies of members of the security forces and government officials. Some of the defendants stated that they had not even participated in the protests, this being confirmed by witnesses. These witness statements were dismissed by the Public Prosecutor.

All the defendants remained in detention until 2 June when the Public Prosecutor ordered the release on bail of 20 of them, including a 58-year old woman. Nine of those released were immediately rearrested under emergency legislation by orders of the Minister of Interior. All those in custody are currently held in Borj al-Arab Prison, near Alexandria. On 6 June, the Public Prosecutor referred their case for trial before the emergency court in Tanta.

Amnesty International is urging the Egyptian authorities to:

rescind the decision to refer the defendants to the emergency court and order a retrial before an ordinary court and ensure they receive a fair trial.
release immediately and unconditionally those protestors found not to have used violence; the others must be given a fair trial in accordance with Egypt’s obligations under international human rights law and standards.
open a full, independent and impartial investigation into the killings of the three people in Mahalla. In particular the investigation should focus on the circumstances in which police used lethal fire and ensure that any officers or other officials responsible for using or ordering excessive force should be brought to justice.