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Youth leader, protesters charged with "insulting the military"

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Cairo, August 17, 2011 - The military prosecutor's decision to prosecute the youth leader Asamaa Mahfouz for "insulting the military" is a serious escalation of efforts by military leaders to silence critical voices, Human Rights Watch said today.

The prosecutor has this week alone summoned both Mahfouz and Maha Abu Bakr, a lawyer, on charges related to speech protected by the right to freedom of expression. They are among a large number of protesters and other civilians facing trials in Egypt's military courts. Civilians should not be prosecuted before Egypt's military courts, which do not meet basic due process standards, Human Rights Watch said.

"The decision to try Asamaa Mahfouz is a major attack on free expression and fair trials, using the same abusive laws the Mubarak government used against its critics," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The military is using her to silence potential critics, sending the message that criticizing the current military government will land them in jail."

The Mahfouz case is the latest in a series of moves prosecuting critical expression by the military, which is increasingly setting narrower and narrower limits on what it permits, Human Rights Watch said.

Mahfouz, a former leading member of the April 6 Youth Movement, received a summons at her home on August 13, 2011, to appear before the military prosecutor the next day for questioning. The military prosecutor questioned her for over three hours about her comments on Twitter and media interviews during protests on July 23 in which she criticized the military for failing to intervene to protect protesters.

He then charged her with "calling for threats to social peace," "spreading false information," and "insulting the military," but allowed her release on 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,400) bail, an extremely high sum for most Egyptians. On August 16 Egypt's official news agency MENA quoted a military justice official saying the prosecutor had decided to refer Mahfouz's case to court on charges of insulting the military, dropping the other charges.

On August 14 the head of the military justice system, Gen. Adel Morsi, in a news release, started by affirming the important role of expression in society and then invited the public to look at Mahfouz's Facebook profile to see for themselves "whether [her comments were] an opinion or an inappropriate violation of the law and incitement." The comment in question, which Mahfouz posted on Twitter and Facebook, was: "If the judiciary doesn't restore our rights then nobody should be surprised if we then see armed groups and assassinations taking place . . . if there is no law and no justice system, no one should be surprised."

"Asmaa Mahfouz's comments reflect her concerns about the need for justice and are fully protected by freedom of expression," Stork said. "Yet the military is prosecuting her under a blatantly abusive law. This charge should be dropped immediately."

Abu Bakr, a lawyer representing victims in the Mubarak trial and a Kifaya activist, received her summons to appear before the military prosecutor on charges of "insulting the military" on August 16. During the questioning, the prosecutor showed her video footage from the July 23 demonstration in Abbasiya, Cairo, of a protester who, the prosecutor told her, was "insulting" the military. The prosecutor dropped the charges against her when he realized the footage was not of her. Lawyer Ahmed Ragheb told Human Rights Watch that this footage was not filmed by the media, which would suggest that the military is filming protesters during demonstrations.

Military courts are currently trying numerous protesters. In an August 15 case, six protesters faced charges of "insulting the military" before a military tribunal for chanting "antagonistic" slogans about Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the de facto ruler of the country, in addition to charges of assaulting a police officer. The military court sentenced Hassan Bahgat to six months in prison in another case, 3779/2011, for insulting the military in Tahrir square on August 6.

Military courts are also currently trying groups of protesters arrested in Cairo in late June and early August around Tahrir Square and in Alexandria on July 22. These include a group of 43 protesters arrested during a June 28 and 29 protest outside the Interior Ministry in downtown Cairo. One of them is the activist Loai Nagaty, whom military police arbitrarily arrested on June 29 on Falaky Street, near the Interior Ministry. They detained him for eight days in the military prison but then released him on health grounds. He faces charges of "assaulting a public officer" and "causing disturbance." The next session of his trial is scheduled for August 23.

Military courts have sentenced at least 10,000 civilians since January 2011 after unfair proceedings, Human Rights Watch said. All of them should be retried before regular civilian courts.

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