Middle East
3:00 am
Tue September 13, 2011

Egypt to Stop Trying Civilians In Military Court

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, host: Meaningful qualification there, saying that most of those shots in other parts of Kabul seem to be wild shots that miss the embassy. We're also following the upheavals in Egypt, where last winter's revolution was only the beginning of change. The military - after Hosni Mubarak's fall - replaced civilian courts with courts of its own, and military justice has proved to be harsher. The military says it will end civilian trials in military courts, but many activists doubt that. Here's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in foreign language)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: On a recent evening, more than 1,000 protesters chanted and waved banners in front of Cairo's high court, demanding an end to the trials of civilians by the Egyptian military. They complain convictions and sentences doled out in military courtrooms are more frequent and severe, and that the accused are stripped of their rights.

One of protestors is Mona Seif, who works for the Egyptian advocacy group No Military Trials. She says while many here hope the military will follow through on its pledge to stop the trials, it's not enough.

MONA SEIF: We are trying to shift the focus more and more to those who have already been sentenced, because we do not want to wake up, you know, in two weeks and find that they have put an end to these trials of civilians, but nobody - but people forgot about those who got sentenced.

NELSON: That number is six times higher since the military took over in February than it was during three decades of the former president's rule, according to the Hisham Mubarak Law Center in Cairo, a group that advocates for Egyptian rights. Activists estimate that more than 12,000 civilians are in the system awaiting trial, or have already been sentenced in secretive sessions that often last only a few minutes. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces doesn't dispute that number.

A council official, who refused to be identified, says the frequency of military trials reflects the circumstances of today's Egyptian society. He says the streets are more lawless since the uprising that ousted Mubarak, and that there are more weapons on the streets. The official refers to those being tried as thugs, from whom Egyptian society has to be protected. He says for now, that's the military's job.

Shahira Abouelleil of the group No Military Trials claims some families of those who've been rounded up were given a more sinister reason.

SHAHIRA ABOUELLEIL: And they have said this to several families. They have said that we want to terrorize the nation back into submission or back into a disciplined state. And so it doesn't really matter if there are plenty of innocent bystanders. It's sort of a - something to scare everyone. So if I take 12,000 people and I throw them in prison, even if they're innocent, that will scare the rest of the population.

NELSON: One prisoner is on the third week of a hunger strike to bring attention to civilians tried by the military and languishing in jail. His name is Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 26-year-old blogger who was arrested in March and sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the military by suggesting it wasn't united with the people.

While the military under public pressure has freed other activists, Sanad is still awaiting an appeal hearing on November 1st. Shahira Abouelleil of No Military Trials says that's because the military is trying to make an example of him.

ABOUELLEIL: They have beef with him from before. He came out and blogged against the draft. He doesn't think that people should be forced into the army.

NELSON: She adds the military feels it can get away with holding Sanad because of his pro-Israel stance, which makes him unpopular with many Egyptians.

MARK NABIL SANAD: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: His younger brother, Mark Nabil Sanad, says he and his family worry Maikel will die before his hearing.

SANAD: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Mark adds that under Mubarak, his brother was never once arrested for his critical writings. He says that alone proves to their family that the freedoms the Egyptians hoped to gain by ousting Mubarak are a long way off.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo.

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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.

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