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Concern over lack of transparency in military investigation of Maspero killings

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, November 15, 2011 - Egypt's military prosecutor should immediately release an award-winning blogger charged in connection with the demonstration by Christian Copts on October 9, 2011, which turned deadly, Human Rights Watch said today. Alaa Abdel Fattah was detained and later charged with incitement and theft of a military weapon, even though the prosecutor had presented no evidence to support the charges. His detention came as military prosecutors started questioning activists and priests about their alleged involvement in publicly encouraging Copts to demonstrate on that day.

During the protest in the Maspero area, military vehicles ran over demonstrators and the military used excessive force to disperse protesters, resulting in the deaths of 27 civilians and one military officer. A November 2 report by the National Council for Human Rights, Egypt's government-appointed human rights commission, said members of the military were responsible for killing demonstrators. Investigations related to this demonstration remain solely in the hands of military prosecutors, who have called in activists and priests for questioning but have refused to reveal any information about whether they are investigating any military officers for their roles in killing Coptic protesters.

"Instead of identifying which members of the military were driving the military vehicles that crushed 13 Coptic protesters, the military prosecutor is going after the activists who organized the march," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Abdel Fattah's detention is a blatant effort to target one of the most vocal critics of the military. The prosecutor's acts further entrench military impunity by failing to build public confidence that there will be a transparent investigation of those responsible for the deaths."

On October 30 Abdel Fattah and Bahaa Saber, another political activist, appeared before the military prosecutor in response to an official summons. Prosecutors questioned them about their political affiliations and involvement in the protests at Maspero, but the two men refused to answer, saying they did not recognize the military's authority to try civilians before military courts.

Abdel Fattah's father, Ahmed Saif al-Islam, who is also serving as one of his defense lawyers, told Human Rights Watch that he and the team of defense lawyers contended during the interrogation that the military court was not competent to question civilians with regard to the Maspero violence because the military itself was party to the violence and the head of the military police was responsible for the deaths of protesters.

In response, the military prosecutor ordered Abdel Fattah's detention for 15 days. The prosecutor released Saber pending further investigation.

On November 3 the head of the military justice system released a statement saying the military prosecutor had charged Abdel Fattah with "theft of a military weapon, the destruction of military property, incitement to the assault of military officers, illegally demonstrating and use of force against members of the armed forces." At no point in the proceedings has the prosecutor presented any evidence against Abdel Fattah. Given the absence of evidence, Human Rights Watch believes it is highly likely that the charges were trumped up and are politically motivated, related to Abdel Fattah's activism. On November 3 his lawyers filed an appeal against his detention, which the prosecutor rejected and on November 14, the prosecutor renewed Abdel Fattah's detention for a further 15 days.

Abdel Fattah is an award-winning blogger and activist who has been one of the most vocal critics of abuses by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the interim governing authority in Egypt. Abdel Fattah has written regular columns in the independent daily Al Shorouk and appeared on private satellite TV stations such as ON TV. The Mubarak government imprisoned him in 2006 for 45 days for participating in protests calling for judicial independence. The Egyptian daily Al Shorouk and The Guardian published a letter written by Abdel Fattah on November 1 in which he wrote, "I never expected to repeat the experience of five years ago: after a revolution that deposed the tyrant, I go back to his jails?"

"The military government has no business prosecuting Abdel Fattah, or any other civilian, in a military court, much less in a case involving the military's own unlawful violence against protesters," Whitson said. "These charges presented without evidence against one of the country's best known activists are further reflection of the military's desire to silence its critics."

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