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Authorities urged to halt detention, abuse of peaceful demonstrators

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Cairo, March 3, 2011 - Egyptian military authorities should stop using military tribunals to prosecute civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. The military should also halt detentions of peaceful demonstrators and end violence by soldiers against protesters and detainees, Human Rights Watch said.

Military courts have convicted dozens of civilians, all charged with criminal offenses, including possession of weapons, since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took control of Egypt on February 11, 2011. Reports of military trials of civilians, in particular people accused of weapons offenses and other crimes, have surfaced in the past week. While there may be cause to detain and prosecute people suspected of committing crimes, military courts typically do not meet international fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said. In at least one case, a military court convicted detainees without the presence of lawyers, although the court later dropped the charges.

"Egyptian military authorities are continuing one of the worst practices of the Hosni Mubarak government by prosecuting civilians in military tribunals," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Authorities have no business arresting people merely for participating in a peaceful demonstration in the first place."

In one recent case, on February 26, soldiers arrested at least nine people during demonstrations in and near Tahrir Square, in central Cairo. The Defense Ministry, in a March 1 news release, announced that it was investigating them for having "sneaked in among the youth" protesting in the square and "causing unrest." In fact, on that day, a military court had convicted one of them, Amr Abdallah al-Bahari, 32, for assaulting a soldier and breaking curfew, his lawyer, Adel Ramadan, told Human Rights Watch. Soldiers physically abused al-Bahari when they arrested him on February 26, a witness told Human Rights Watch.

Al-Bahari's brother, Mohammed, told Human Rights Watch that soldiers arrested al-Bahari after midnight February 26 when the army raided Tahrir Square and a nearby street in front of parliament to clear the area of demonstrators. The brother said that the soldiers held al-Bahari incommunicado and refused him access to lawyers. Ramadan discovered al-Bahari's conviction while inspecting records at a military courthouse in the Nasr City district of Cairo on March 2.

In another case, Mohammed Isam al-Khatib told Human Rights Watch that soldiers at a military checkpoint detained him on February 2 while he was traveling by taxi to a bus station to return home to the city of Suez. He said the military detained him for nine days and then brought him to a military prosecutor, along with 20 other detainees. The prosecutor told al-Khatib he had violated military curfew, a charge al-Khatib contested, saying that soldiers had stopped him at 1 p.m. A military court session for al-Khatib and seven other defendants lasted 10 minutes, al-Khatib said. They were permitted neither to speak, except to deny the charges, nor to consult with court-appointed lawyers. Each defendant received a three-month suspended sentence, al-Khatib said, and soldiers then released them on the Suez-Ismailiya road near Hikstep, east of Cairo.

The Supreme Military Court has announced numerous convictions in recent days, but it is not clear to what extent the prosecutions are related to demonstrations. On March 1 the Supreme Military Court issued a list of three convictions in the city of Ismailiya, and 15 in Cairo, for crimes including weapons possession, assault, and robbery. On the same day, the state-run Al Ahram newspaper published statements from the Supreme Military Court listing the conviction of 13 other men in Cairo on charges of carrying rifles, explosives, knives, and other weapons, "terrorizing" citizens and violating curfew. Their sentences ranged from 5 to 15 years in prison.

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Human Rights Watch has also received reports of abuse of protesters by soldiers. On February 26 soldiers abused protesters at Tahrir Square and the parliament building, including Amr Abdullah al-Bahari, with sticks and electric prods, a witness, Laila Soueif, who was participating in the demonstration, told Human Rights Watch. She said that when soldiers took al-Bahari into custody he had bruises and scratches on his face.

One of the other protesters at the site, Mohammed Musa, recounted brutal treatment he had received in a garage at a building housing cabinet offices, near the parliament. Soldiers, including officers, kicked him all over his body and head, he told Human Rights Watch. Soldiers stripped some detainees and sprayed them with water, and beat and shocked others with electric batons, he said.

Late on February 26 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which currently rules Egypt, issued an apology, saying that what happened "was the result of unintentional confrontations between the military and the youth of the revolution." The statement said, "All measures will be taken to ensure this will not happen again"

"An apology for this kind of brutal physical abuse of demonstrators and detainees is not nearly enough," Whitson said. "Authorities need to hold the soldiers and officers responsible accountable.''

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