Egyptian military courts have put thousands of Egyptian civilians on trial, which has continued unabated throughout the past three regimes. The trials have recently intensified on the pretext of the regime’s “war on terror” and resulting in harsh death sentences.

Thirty-eight death sentences have been issued against civilians over the past five years, according to the ‘No Military Trials for Civilians’ group.

Egyptian military courts have put thousands of Egyptian civilians on trial, which has continued unabated throughout the past three regimes. The trials have recently intensified on the pretext of the regime’s “war on terror” and resulting in harsh death sentences.

Thirty-eight death sentences have been issued against civilians over the past five years, according to the ‘No Military Trials for Civilians’ group.

“Before the court session, I was asked not to attend, and I stayed away. I tried to contact the lawyers, who told me that the session had been adjourned,” says Afaf, mother of Abdul Basir Abdul Raouf, who was prosecuted under the Military Criminal Court West case No. 174. “I learned through Facebook that my eldest son was sentenced to death. I felt that all my past years of toil had been wasted,” she said of her 19-year-old son Abdul Basir who had been arrested in May of last year. He was a junior student at the Naval Engineering Academy.

May 29 was a tragic day for eight young men, including Basir, who were sentenced to death by the West Cairo Military Court executed under case No. 174/2015, known in the media as the ‘advanced operations’. Six of the convicts were present and two were sentenced in absentia, on charges of “receiving instructions from the Muslim Brotherhood group to spread chaos, training at foreign camps to carry out assassinations and kidnappings, making explosive devices, facilitating the movements and contacts of the cell members in the country and sabotaging electrical and communications infrastructures.

“He had gone to study for the exam with one of his classmates, but he did not return,” remembered mother Basir. “We tried to call him but he did not answer. He disappeared for 12 days, and on our first visit to him, he told us that the security force arrested him on the street.”

Sara al-Sharif, member of ‘No Military Trials for Civilians’ group says the case involved 20 defendants, 15 of whom were kidnapped from the street or from their homes, between May 25 to early June 2015. They later appeared in a video recording, released by the Ministry of Defense at a security headquarters. There were signs of torture on their faces and they confessed to carrying out a number of “terrorist acts.”

Abdul Basir’s mother emphasized that during her first visit to her son in prison, he told her that the security forces had forced the confessions from him through torture. Acccording to her, they told him if he did not sign the statement, he would face Islam Attito’s destiny. “There will be no blood money and you will never be able to prove that we arrested you,” he allegedly said. They blindfolded him for 12 days, and made him sign a confession statement at gunpoint.

Eight other defendants were sentenced to death, four of whom in their presence, under case No. 325/2015 at the military criminal court of Alexandria.

Torture in detention

According to Sara Sharif, the charges date back to April 15, 2015 when a bomb exploded in Kafr el-Sheikh stadium, where military college cadets were assembled to travel to Cairo. Three cadets were killed and two others were wounded. The security forces arrested eight persons from the governorate and kept them under forcible disappearance for nearly two months, during which time they were subjected to different types of torture. They later appeared on several charges, including premeditated murder.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) suggests that military investigations, conducted by the Northern Military Region in connection with the incident, had revealed that they “failed to identify the perpetrator, because there were no cameras at the scene. Besides, camera 1 could not identify the perpetrators, due to the distance and visibility obstacles.”

EIPR adds that among those sentenced to death was Fakih Abdul Latif, a science teacher at Martyr Ahmed Saad al-Dihi prep school at Shanu in Kafr El-Sheikh governorate. EIPR retains a duly authenticated official document stating that the teacher attended school on April 15, 2015 and never left anywhere that day. This contradicts the charges leveled against him in the indictment decision issued by Tanta military court, which claimed that Faqih was on the scene and participated in the bombing.

The families of the defendants learned about their whereabouts 72 days after their disappearance, through other prisoners’ families. They could see them only 93 days after the completion of the investigations, which were carried out against their free will. The lawyers were banned from attending the investigations, in flagrant violation of defense rights.

“Military courts lack major aspects of due process,” explains Sara Sharif. “These courts are controlled by the minister of defense, and all judges and prosecution members are military people holding different ranks, and acting in accordance with the military laws. The defense minister appoints the judges upon recommendation by the chairman of military judicial commission, and they are therefore unable to try those who are higher than them in rank. They comply with their commanders’ orders, and their verdicts do not take effect unless endorsed by an officer who is not a member of the Court, and who has the power to annul the verdict, block its execution, commute it, or even repeat the trial, according to Sara. She believes that this situation deprives those judges of independence and impartiality.

“As my son was leaving the military courtroom, I begged the soldiers to let me reach my son, but they refused,” says a mother describing the first time she had a glimpse of her son. “Then, I somehow managed to dash through them and reached him as he was about to be whisked off into the prisoners’ car. The soldiers were running after me. My son saw me running and shouted ‘mother, be careful lest you fall'”.

Sentenced in absentia

Ahmed Amin al-Ghazali, 26, was arrested on May 28, 2015 from Maadi metro station by plain-clothed security officers and he disappeared for 44 days. Ahmed’s mobile phone fell, and a lady standing nearby picked it up and dialed the last number on his contacts list and explained what happened.

Despite all these violations, says Sara, priority now is not talking about military trials of civilians in general, but addressing the death sentences by military courts against civilians. She pointed out that the death penalty is the most serious punishment of all, because once issued, the sentence becomes irreversible, even if injustice has been later proven. She wondered about what could be done regarding death sentences issued by military courts which are deprived of the least guarantees for justice.

“Two days following my son’s arrest, a security force came to our house with him and searched his room,” says Ahmed’s mother. “The moment I saw him, I was tongue-tied and could not stand on my feet. It was utterly horrifying to see my son with guns pointed at his back. For 44 days we did not know anything about Ahmed. We only knew what happened when we saw him at the military prosecutor’s.

Ahmed told to his mother: “I remained blindfolded for 44 days. They used to hang me with both my hands tied up and a heavy weight tied to my feet. Then they would let me fall all of a sudden. When I later asked them why they brought me there, they said someone would come to tell you what you should do. After some time, a security officer came and told me that if I were to leave I had to say two words. They would photograph me and send me to prison so that I could be relieved of what I experienced at the security detention center.”

About the judgment day, she said: “No one told me about the verdict. I read it on the faces of the parents coming out of the courtroom. They were crying and some of them collapsed and fainted.” She still remembers her son’s words after the judgment. “Mother, Allah is our judge; it is He who judges and orders and I will accept anything that comes from Him. I am only worried about you,” Ahmed said.

In May last year, the military court sentenced seven defendants to death in the  ‘Arab Sharkas’ case. Six of them were executed and the seventh is still under investigation about his affiliation to ‘Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’ group. Fourteen civilians also received death sentences under four cases during the military council rule, but none of them was executed, according to Sara Sharif who affirms that the defendants in the four cases have appealed against the charges, but the court is yet to look into the appeal, with increased likelihood that the sentences could be implemented at any moment.

One of those sentenced to death in absentia is Ahmed Abdul Basit, a professor at the Faculty of Science, Cairo University. He was fired from the university in April 2015 because of his university activities against the policies of Jaber Al-Nassar, the university president.

“After my dismissal, I decided to travel abroad for work,” says Abdul Basit. “I went to the State of Qatar. Two months after my departure, I was surprised by a video, broadcast on the Egyptian television, accusing me and 20 others of involvement in the case “advanced operations.”

Abdul Basit was accused of financing a terrorist cell with EGP 15000 a month (US $1,690), although his salary was only EGP 3000 (US $338), and he had no other additional source of income or bank accounts.

He explains that he has now gone into self-exile, because he has no right to appeal, unless he surrenders to the Egyptian authorities. He said he would not do so because he does not trust the integrity of the judiciary and knows very well that the sentence will be carried out.

 Abdul Basit says he does not know any of the other persons charged for the same case except Ahmed al-Ghazali who is also a student activist.

Speaking about his life in the self-exile, he says his family has been made homeless since his death sentence. He managed to bring his wife and children to Qatar because he was banned from returning to Egypt. After the issuance of the court verdict, the Qatari university dismissed him, which forced him to send his family back due to lack of an income.

No pretense of justice in military courts

EIPR stresses that military trials are characterized by speedy judgments, which can have serious impacts on the verification and ascertaining process and deprive the accused of their legal rights.

Adel Ramadan, a human rights lawyer at EIPR says that in the event of death sentences, the case will be presented to the Supreme Court of Military Appeals. The laws of military judiciary were amended in 2007, and the Supreme Court of Military Appeals was created. Thus, the last chance for those facing death penalty is to challenge the sentences.

It is worth mentioning that military trials in Egypt date back to 1952, in the wake of Kafr Al-Dawar labor protests, when textile workers went on strike.

“The army at the time arrested hundreds of striking workers on charges of sabotage and rioting, and set up military courts for the first time,” says Amr Imam, a human rights lawyer at Hisham Mubarak Law Firm. “The first sentence of death by firing squad was issued against two workers: 19-year-old Mohammed Mustafa Khamis and 17-year-old Mohammed Abdulrahman Al-Baqri.”

Between July 1952 revolution and January 2011 revolution, the Egyptian authorities used military trials several times against the opposition. The most ferocious were the trials that followed the assassination of former president Anwar Sadat. Later on, Hosni Mubarak expanded the use of military trials against Islamists to ensure quick and strict sentences against thousands of opposition Islamic groups.