Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EGYPT: Islamist Leadership Faces Military Tribunal

Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani

CAIRO, Feb 20 2007 (IPS) - In a further escalation of the ongoing crackdown against the Islamist opposition, the state earlier this month referred 40 high-ranking members of the Muslim Brotherhood to a military court on charges of money laundering and “attempting to revive the banned group’s activities.”

Human rights activists and legal experts say the decision marks a serious regression in terms of promised political reform.

“The move represents a step backwards for democracy and a violation of human rights according to the Egyptian constitution,” Hafez Abu Saeda, chairman of the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights told IPS.

On Feb. 7, government daily al-Ahram reported that 40 of the group’s leading members were to be remanded to a military court “to be tried in relation to the funding of student militias in al-Azhar University and for financing the group’s secret activities in Egypt.”

Al-Ahram went on to report that the trial would feature “new evidence of money laundering and money transfers from abroad…to fund the banned group’s activities”, as well as “documents confirming that the group has not forsaken violence.”

Those to be referred to military trial included Khairat al-Shater, second deputy of the Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme guide, along with 39 other high-ranking members of the group’s leadership. Although Cairo’s criminal court had ordered the release of el-Shater and 15 other co-defendants late last month, they were immediately re-arrested on orders of the interior ministry under the terms of Egypt’s decades-old Emergency Law.

The decision represents the sixth time in the Muslim Brotherhood’s history that its members have been referred to a military tribunal. The last time was in 2001, when dozens of the group’s leading members received jail terms after being found guilty by a military court of “membership of a banned group” and “attempting to establish an Islamic Caliphate.”

Unlike civil trials, sentences handed down by military courts cannot be challenged before any other judicial authority. Once convicted, the only recourse left to the defendant is to present a plea for clemency to the President of the republic in his capacity as commander- in-chief of the military.

The latest decision comes amid a major crackdown on the Islamist group, initially triggered by a rally held by Brotherhood-affiliated students at Cairo’s al-Azhar University in mid-December. Despite its small size, the incident triggered a maelstrom of official condemnation, with the state press depicting the event as the advent of an “Islamic militia”.

Although Brotherhood spokesmen insisted the rally was merely “athletic” in nature, police arrested 124 students involved in the incident, along with almost 20 high-ranking Brotherhood members, including el-Shater, on charges of inciting public unrest. While the prosecutor-general has announced a decision to release a handful of the students, they, along with all of the Brotherhood members, remain in detention.

The incident led President Hosni Mubarak to make the unprecedented declaration Jan. 15 that the group represented a “danger to Egypt’s security” due to its “religious orientation”.

Late January the prosecutor-general announced a freeze of the financial assets of 29 businessmen associated with the Brotherhood, again including el-Shater, on charges of money laundering.

Some political observers say that the latest crackdowns are aimed at nothing less than the wholesale elimination of the Brotherhood – by far the most formidable opposition grouping in Egypt – from the political arena.

“The latest escalations by the regime are an attempt to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood from party politics,” Abdel Halim Kandil, editor-in-chief of independent weekly al-Karama told IPS.

Legal experts and human rights activists point out that the move also represents a blatant misuse of the Emergency Law, under the auspices of which military tribunals are set up.

“Military tribunals aren’t for trying civilians,” Atef al-Banna, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University told IPS. “They were established to deal with cases that have military dimensions or that involve the armed forces.”

First imposed following the 1981 assassination of former president Anwar Sadat, the state of emergency has been long abhorred by both opposition and human rights groups, who say its primary function has been to cow political dissent. Last April the Emergency Law was extended for another two years after a bomb attack in the Red Sea resort town of Dahab killed 18 people.

“When the Emergency Law was extended, the government promised to invoke it only in cases involving terrorism and narcotics trafficking,” said Abu Saeda. “But the accused Muslim Brotherhood members are neither terrorists nor drug traffickers.”

The Cairo-based Arab Centre for Judicial Independence has expressed its “strong disapproval” of trying civilians in military courts. Such a practice, the centre said in a statement, “represents a failure to live up to international agreements signed by Egypt guaranteeing citizens a fair and evenhanded trial.”

In the face of such criticism, however, the government appears set to keep up the pressure on the Islamist group. On Feb. 15, security forces detained another 80 of its members in a fresh wave of arrests spanning several governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria.

Spokesmen for the group were quick to condemn the new detentions.

“These arrests confirm the regime’s commitment to a policy of exclusion against any opposition groups with social or political weight,” Brotherhood spokesman Essam al-Arian told Arabic language news channel al-Jazeera on the day of the arrests. “No opposition group is tolerated unless it has been co-opted by the regime or poses no threat to it.”

The Muslim Brotherhood was banned in the mid-1950s when some of its members were accused of trying to assassinate then president Gamal Abdel Nasser. In the 1970s the group officially renounced violence, and its tactics have been confined to the political arena ever since.

While the Brotherhood remains officially banned, its members can run as nominal independents in parliamentary elections. In late 2005, the group captured roughly one- fifth of the seats in parliament, largely because of the grass-roots support it has built by providing much-needed social services in impoverished areas.

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