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Activists caught in Egypt's secretive military justice system

Though the rebellion managed to topple President Hosni Mubarak, the emergency laws that helped sustain his regime are still in effect, leaving a large number of protesters behind bars without access to lawyers and families, human rights groups say.

July 03, 2011|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times
  • A protester takes cover during clashes with riot police in front of the Interior Ministry in Cairo in late June.
A protester takes cover during clashes with riot police in front of the Interior… (Reuters )

Reporting from Cairo — Taher Nagati awoke early Saturday and squeezed into a cramped sedan with his lawyer for an hour's drive in chaotic morning traffic to military court.

Nagati, 24, a biomedical engineer, hoped to penetrate Egypt's secretive military justice system in search of his brother, Loai, a prominent Twitter activist who had been arrested during a street protest Wednesday.

But when he arrived at "C-28," a forbidding concrete fortress that serves as a military courthouse, a throng already swarmed the front gate, desperate for information about friends or relatives. Nagati's heart sank.

"We've had our revolution, but we still have some of the same old injustices," he said.

The rebellion may have toppled President Hosni Mubarak, but emergency laws that helped sustain his regime are still very much in effect. Dismaying Egyptians who have long revered the country's military, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is using the same laws to arrest activists and others.

Since January, more than 10,000 people have been detained under the military tribunal system, including up to 5,000 activists and protesters, human rights lawyers say. A few thousand detainees are still in custody, activist Mona Seif said.

Detainees are routinely denied access to lawyers and families, human rights groups say. They are swiftly tried and sentenced by military tribunals and packed off to military prison. Late last month, Amnesty International said that trying civilians in military courts "violates fundamental requirements of due process and fair trials."

Protesters and activists have received sentences from a few months to seven years, Seif said. Most fall under the military rubric of "thuggery," charged with assaulting police, resisting arrest, trespassing, obstructing traffic or possessing weapons or explosives.

Loai Nagati, 21, a computer science student who condemned military tribunals in his popular Twitter posts, was among 49 people arrested near Tahrir Square during clashes Tuesday and Wednesday. The demonstrations were among the most violent since Mubarak was overthrown Feb. 11.

The confrontations with police laid bare simmering resentments of a ruling military council many Egyptians consider opaque, authoritative and unresponsive.

In fact, the council funnels activists through military courts precisely because they are unaccountable, charged Ahmed Ragheb, a human rights lawyer who represents detainees.

Ragheb said detainees are entitled to lawyers, but the military routinely keeps lawyers at bay, providing false or misleading information about detainees' status. Often, tribunals convict and sentence detainees before lawyers can find them.

"Or they assign them inexperienced lawyers, just to complete the show," Ragheb said.

The council has declined to say how many detainees are being held, Seif said. Nor has it indicated how long emergency laws will remain in effect, Ragheb said, meaning they will probably last at least until after parliamentary elections scheduled for September.

Two officers serving as spokesmen for the ruling council did not respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Taher Nagati learned of his brother's arrest not from the military, but from Twitter posts by Loai's friends. He has worked on his brother's case round the clock, begging off work and barely sleeping.

He has taken several two-hour taxi rides to the military prison where his brother is being held, only to be denied access to Loai. He persuaded an officer to deliver eight medications Loai takes for a chronic heart condition.

Ahmed Hasmet, Loai's 29-year-old lawyer, met Loai through his Twitter posts and volunteered his services. The charging document, which accuses him of assaulting police, resisting arrest and interfering with police duties, contained a statement from a police officer who said Loai threw rocks at police.

"But how can we trust his account when the police are the ones who arrested him and turned him over to the military courts?" Hasmet asked.

He said he had found three witnesses willing to testify that Loai didn't throw anything — and in fact implored protesters not to throw stones or antagonize the police.

Thousands of Twitter and Facebook followers have visited "Free Loai" sites and downloaded Loai's photograph in place of their Facebook profile photos. In the half-hour before his arrest, Loai posted six Tweets describing confrontations and the use of rubber bullets.

Seif said the military tends to release well-known social media activists such as Loai Nagati on suspended sentences to avoid unwelcome publicity. But Ragheb said protesters with little education or social status often disappear inside the tribunal system.

Taher Nagati risked his job to press his brother's case. He failed to show up for three days of work without explaining why. He referred to his bosses as "couch revolutionaries," meaning they want nothing to do with protests or politics.

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