Egypt: Release of activist lays bare injustice of military trials for civilians

The release of an Egyptian activist after a year in prison stands as a stark reminder that military courts cannot deliver justice to civilians, said Amnesty International.

Amr El Beheiry was set free on Monday after a military court reduced his original sentence of five years to six months and a fine during a retrial on 15 February.

“Not only was Amr El Beheiry tried unfairly as a civilian before a military court, but he was deprived of his liberty for almost a year as a result of a sentence handed down with little regard for due process,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Deputy Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International.

“Amr is not alone. Thousands of Egyptians have been sentenced before military courts although they are civilians. Many of them are either waiting for their retrial after having appealed their sentence or are too poor to pay for their appeal or simply do not know of their right to appeal.”

“Amr has now been cleared of the charges of assault, which means he spent all this time in prison just for breaking the curfew,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

During his retrial, Amr El Beheiry was sentenced to six months on charges of breaking the curfew and given a fine of 50 Egyptian pounds (US$8).

In March last year, he was convicted by a military court for breaking the curfew and assaulting a military officer. He was arrested on 26 February, when the military police and the army dispersed anti-government protesters in Cairo. The authorities then portrayed him as a thug on the state TV and in newspapers.

During his first trial, Amr El Beheiry was prevented from being represented by a lawyer of his own choosing and the hearing lasted just a few minutes.

As a result of his sentence he lost his job as a driver for a goods company in Tanta.

Amr’s brother spoke to Amnesty International about his brother’s ordeal:

“Amr is psychologically very tired after his experience. He has lost his job and his life has been destroyed just because he went out to defend his country.”

During his arrest and detention, Amr was beaten up, insulted, humiliated and imprisoned in Wadi El Guedid Prison, in the south west of the country, some 700km away from his family home in the Nile Delta city of Tanta, before finally being brought to Wadi Natroun Prison where he was held with other prisoners convicted for drug and theft related offences.

His brother has previously told Amnesty International that prison guards referred to his brother and other protesters detained with him as “the thugs of the revolution”.

In September 2011, the military authorities said that since January some 12,000 people had been prosecuted by the military or been brought before the military judiciary. While many have been released since then, thousands remain detained after unfair trials. In January 2012, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced they would pardon 1,959 people convicted by military courts.

At the end of January, members of the People’s Assembly, Egypt’s lower house of parliament, presented a draft law which would prevent the trial of civilians before military court.

Amnesty International condemns such trials of civilians, considering them to be fundamentally unfair and in violation of a number of guarantees of due process.

In January, the head of the ruling Supreme Council for the Armed Forces announced that the authorities would lift the 30-year old state of emergency except for acts of thuggery.

This exception would mean that the Minister of the Interior would retain the ability to order indefinite detention without charge or trial.

At least 53 individuals are believed to be held in administrative detention under emergency legislation.

“If the Egyptian authorities are serious about marking a real break with the Mubarak days, they must completely scrap this emergency legislation and stop trying civilians before military courts,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.