Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the decree issued by President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi concerning military trials for civilians accused of attacking ‘vital’ state facilities, in a statement released Monday.
The rights group said the decree is an “unprecedented expansion of military courts… [which] broadens jurisdiction over civilians”.
The 27 October decree states that those who commit crimes against “vital” state facilities or attack military personnel on duty may be referred to military courts. The facilities referred to in the decree include “stations, power networks and towers, gas and oil fields, rail lines, road networks, bridges”.
HRW said the new law gives military courts “the widest legal authority since the birth of Egypt’s modern republic in 1952”.
“This law represents another nail in the coffin of justice in Egypt,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.
The degree, which will remain in effect for two years, was issued following the 24 October attacks in Sinai, which left at least 30 security personnel dead. Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis, the militant group based in North Sinai that recently pledged allegiance to the self-proclaimed ‘Islamic State’ group (ISIS), claimed those attacks.
HRW mentioned the five Al-Azhar students who were referred to a military court Sunday. The group also mentioned the death sentences handed to seven men and life-sentences to two others in October, for belonging to Ansar Beit Al-Maqdis. The accused were also alleged to have been involved in three violent incidents in March that left nine soldiers dead.
The defendants were arrested in March and the police claimed to have found explosives and weapons that had been used in attacks on soldiers earlier that month.
HRW stated that their trial “lacked basic due process guarantees, putting its fairness in question”.
Ahmed Helmy, a lawyer for four of the defendants, noted that three of them sought his help in January before their arrest. They disappeared separately in November and December 2013, and were held in custody in Azouli prison in Suez months before the events they were charged with. The authorities, however, “denied that the three men were in custody”.
According to a family member of one of the defendants who goes by the name Hani Amer, he was tortured and his shoulders were dislocated.
Another defendant appeared in the military trial in a wheelchair – his father claimed that his son’s “left knee was completely destroyed and his left femur bone was broken” as a result of torture.
Almost 1,200 civilians have been tried in front of military courts since the 2011 uprising for regular crimes, added the HRW statement.
In an October statement by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Right, concerns were expressed by 15 rights groups over the constitutionality of the decree, referring to Article 204 of the constitution. The article states: “No civilian shall face trial before the Military Court, except for crimes that constitute a direct assault against military facilities or camps of the Armed Forces.”
Among the groups that were against the law were Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), and the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR).
They warned “against the consequences of undermining the civilian justice system under the pretext of combating terrorism”. They added that the new decree “denies citizens their constitutional right to be prosecuted before their natural judge”.
Earlier in November however, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement on the measures taken to counter terrorism. The statement read that “military courts will in no way be applicable to peaceful protesters” as long as they do not violate the new law.
The ministry’s statement also noted that “to ensure the fairness for the defendants” the military judicial system was amended. The judicial process will be conducted in two stages to preserve the defendants for an appeal.