Five Mansoura University students were handed three-year sentences by a military court Thursday, with another student receiving a seven-year sentence on Thursday, said ‘No to Military Trials’ independent movement member Sara Al-Sherif.
The students were arrested on 16 April 2014 in front of Mansoura University’s Al-Galaa gate on charges of illegal assembly and blocking roads, amongst other charges. The case was later referred to the military prosecution on 20 January 2015, following the issuance of the controversial presidential decree categorised under Law 136/2014.
In October, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi issued a decree stipulating the referral to a military court of any person who attempts to vandalise public property. Al-Sisi urged military personnel to take part in protecting those properties, along with the police forces. The law will remain in place for two years.
Amongst the facilities “protected…against terrorist attacks” by the new law are “stations, power networks and towers, gas and oil fields, rail lines, road networks, bridges”.
The law was issued after Al-Sisi’s consultations with the National Defence Council, following two deadly attacks in Sinai that left at least 30 military personnel dead.
Since last October, 184 students have been referred to military trial according to a survey undertaken by the Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms (ECRF). Mansoura University came in the lead, with 49 cases of referral to military courts, followed by Al-Azhar University with 37, and Assiut University with 15.
The practice of military trials on civilians has been widely criticised by human rights advocates, especially after increasing its application for university students.
Since the approval of the law in October 2014, the number of civilians referred to military trials was estimated to exceed 2,000, according to a member of the ‘No to Military Trials’ independent movement.
Many activists and rights organisations reject civilians being tried in front of military courts. They argue that every citizen has the right to be tried before his/ her ‘natural judge’, based on constitutional guarantees.
Article 204 of the constitution pertaining to military trials of civilians, states: “Civilians cannot stand trial before military courts except for crimes that represent a direct assault against military facilities, military barracks, or whatever falls under their authority… or crimes that represent assault against its officers or personnel because of the performance of their duties.”
The constitution initially assigned the military judiciary to cover crimes involving army and intelligence service personnel, but then allowed military trials for civilians for crimes that represent direct assaults on military facilities. The article included a wide range of military belongings, including documents, public funds, or military secrets.
The constitutional article also left leeway for the law to identify these crimes and to determine other terms of reference to military judiciary.
The last four years have witnessed an upsurge in the use of military trials on civilians. According to the online observatory OpenDemocracy, more civilians have been tried in military courts since the 25 January Revolution than during the whole of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule.