15 Independent Rights groups Condemn the Expansion in the Jurisdiction of Military Courts

Press Release

30 October 2014

The undersigned organizations express their extreme concern regarding the presidential decree, issued this week, which subjects the security and protection of a large number of public and vital establishments to the mandate of military facilities. This decree expands the jurisdiction of military courts and as such seriously jeopardizes citizens’ right to fair trials and further aggravates the current crisis of the Egyptian justice system.

The undersigned organizations demand that President Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi immediately withdraw the decree.

On October 27, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi issued Law No. 136/2014, broadening the mandate of the military judiciary to include crimes committed against a wide range of public buildings and facilities including “electricity networks and stations, gas pipes, oil fields, railways, road and bridge networks, as well as other buildings, utilities and public property and anything that is considered as such,” effective for two years. The provision would allow for the trial in military court of any civilian accused of vandalism of public property or of blocking public roads – a charge frequently leveled against alleged anti-government protesters including EIPR's transitional justice officer Yara Sallam.

Expanding the jurisdiction of military courts over the trials of civilians breaches the 2014 constitution which restricts the mandate of military courts over civilians to attacks against military personnel and establishments. The new decree is a masked state of emergency as it denies citizens’ their constitutional right to be prosecuted before their natural judge. The decree also circumvents the constitutional guarantee by assigning the armed forces, along with the police, to the protection of public establishments thus making them fall within the mandate of military establishments. This creates a parallel judicial system, and could potentially lead to the trial of thousands of civilians before military courts that lack the minimum standards of fair trials.

Since June 30, 2013, civilians accused of terrorism-related offenses targeting the armed forces' personnel, checkpoints or facilities have already faced military trials in Ismailiyya, Suez and Hiekstep military courts, and have been detained in military prisons. According to lawyers, the Ismailiyya military court alone reviews between 40 - 140 misdemeanors cases involving civilians three times a week, and between 20 - 45 weekly felony cases. Due process rights are not upheld in these military courts. For instance, suspects tried in front of the Ismailiyya military court have complained of torture and other forms of degrading treatment at the time of their arrest and in custody. Some defendants claimed to have signed confessions under torture. None had access to a lawyer of their choice during their initial interrogations by arresting authorities or the military prosecution, undermining the right to adequate defense. These trials are held in maximum security military establishments that make them inaccessible to the defendants’ lawyers and families.

While a number of amendments to the military justice code introduced in February 2014 rectified some of the problems surrounding military trials, namely the introduction of a right of appeal in misdemeanor cases and cassation for felony cases, proceedings in military courts still flout the basic guarantees of fair trial, including the right to be tried by an independent, impartial tribunal. The military judiciary falls under the authority of the defense ministry, and all the judges and prosecutors are military personnel of various ranks subject to all disciplinary regulations set forth in the military service laws. The minister of defense, based on recommendations from the head of the Military Judicial Authority, appoints military judges, who as such do not enjoy the same level of independence of judges in the regular court circuits.

The new law comes in the wake of terrorist attacks targeting the armed forces in the restive North Sinai on 24 October, which left some 33 military and security personnel dead. A presidential spokesperson said that the new law aims to protect public facilities from terrorist attacks.

The undersigned organizations warn against the consequences of undermining the civilian justice system under the pretext of combating terrorism. The undersigned organizations call on the authorities to withdraw the law in question and to strive to maintain the balance between effective counter-terrorism measures, and the necessary respect for basic human rights as per Egypt’s constitution and international obligations.

The undersigned organizations:

1. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights

2. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies

3. National group for human rights and law

4. The Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement

5. The Human Right Association for the Assistance of the Prisoners

6. Arab Network for Human Rights Information

7. Center for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance

8. The Hesham Mobarak Law Center

9. Misryon Against Religious Discrimination

10. Arab Penal Reform Organization

11. Association for Freedom of Expression and of Thought

12. Nazra for Feminist Studies

13. The Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights

14. Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms

15. No Military Trials for Civilians