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Organizing for No Military Trials for Civilians: Interview with Egyptian Activist Shahira Abouellail
Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed interim governance of Egypt on 28 January 2011, at least twelve thousand civilians have been subjected to speedy military trials, often without any access to lawyers, witnesses, or evidence. SCAF is using military trials as a means to stifle dissent and create a climate of fear in Egypt. Ragia Omran, an attorney and co-founder of the civic group, No Military Trials for Civilians, says that during the first months of its governance, SCAF justified use of military trials due to the lack of police presence. Despite the intervening ten months, SCAF continue to use military trials under the authority of military law that penalizes attacks on military personnel and premises. Omran says that when people are at demonstrations, “there are military personnel present, so protesters are charged with attacking military personnel, and based on that, they are transferred to military court.”
In recent weeks, the military courts have sparked renewed controversy. On 27 October 2011, Essam Atta, who was serving a two-year sentence at the infamous Tora prison, died after being tortured by prison guards, inspiring comparisons to the torture and death of Khaled Said by police officers in Alexandria, one of the catalysts of the Egyptian Revolution. Ironically, just the day before, on 26 October 2011, the Alexandria Criminal Court sentenced the police officers who murdered Khaled Said to seven years each, causing anger and disbelief among Egyptians, especially after witnessing military courts dole out much longer sentences to ordinary citizens for unsubstantiated charges. Renowned revolutionary and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah, who is awaiting his first child in three weeks, was summoned to a military trial while at a conference in the United States. The military accused him of “inciting violence against the army" during the 9 October 2011 Maspero demonstration, at which the military attacked protesters, resulting in the death of at least twenty-eight people. On 30 October 2011, Abd El Fattah appeared at Cairo's notorious C28 military prosecution headquarters, where police arrested and detained him for refusing to answer the interrogators' questions. His administrative detention, which could be arbitrarily extended at the military's will, caused an uproar in Egypt, marked by demonstrations and protests. His appeal hearing took place on 3 November 2011 and he is now being held at Bab el-Khalq prison, in what he says is a cockroach-infested cell with eight other prisoners. Separately, SCAF announced the pardon of 334 civilians who were sentenced in military trials due to internal and international pressure,
Activists formed No Military Trials for Civilians to resist and condemn SCAF's use of military trials and violations against civilians. They have called for a global day of action on 12 November 2011. Shahira Abouellail is an Egyptian activist and one of the group’s founders. I spoke to her by phone about the recent events in Egypt.
Lillian Boctor (LB): What has the Egyptian public’s reaction been to the sentencing of the police involved in the death of Khaled Said?
Shahira Abouellail (SA): The vast majority of the Egyptian public was very outraged with the sentencing of the people who killed Khaled Said. They got seven years for torturing and murdering a human while in uniform. To add insult to injury, their job was to protect, and what they did was completely abuse their power and torture and kill a human being and an Egyptian citizen. So people are very outraged. People have become further outraged when they learn that innocent people are being picked up off the street, subjected to military trials, and getting ten, twenty, twenty-five years in prison, and then people who have actually committed heinous crimes get seven years and can be out on good behavior after three or four years.
LB: On 27 October, a young man in Egypt, Essam Atta, died after having been in military detention. What happened to Essam Atta?
SA: There was a young man who had already fallen victim to military tribunals. He was arrested with a group of people for basically bogus charges and of course, in military tribunals, they get no defense. It’s basically a sham trial, and he was imprisoned. His mother smuggled him a SIM card so that she could try to communicate with him, and we were actively trying to help this young man get out of prison. So when he was caught with a SIM card, they started systematically and methodically torturing him. Among other things, they used a water hose in his mouth and in his rectum. And they penetrated him with very high-pressure water. This happened over a span of two days. And his body just let in. He passed away. After having been convicted, Essam Atta, the victim of torture who passed away, had said, “I’m in prison for being poor, but I know that God will not leave me and I know he will be kinder to me than humankind has been.” So there was a lot of outrage, especially in the activist community, but also in the public sphere, and a lot of people went to the morgue. And after they did an examination, they took his body in a coffin and walked it over to Tahrir Square in a march and people ended up in Tahrir Square, and their number one demand is that SCAF, or the Supreme Council of Armed Forces, the military council, relinquish power to a civilian government and that we want a timetable, a clear timetable of when this will happen.
LB: Does the military regularly use violence against civilians, and how many people are actually affected by the military trials?
SA: Oh absolutely. We’ve heard horror stories. I have personally been beaten on my head and on my back and I’ve had bruises, and other members of my group have been attacked. There have been a lot of horror stories with SCAF since they’ve taken over power. Regarding military trials, we have about twelve thousand people that have been subjected to military trials. Very brutally unjust military trials where they try people collectively. [The military] will maybe pick up forty demonstrators from somewhere and they put them in a military trial. And they try them collectively and they sentence them collectively for bogus charges. And there is no defense. Most of the time their family members don’t even know they’ve been arrested. And they’re sentenced usually without being in the courtroom, if you can call it a courtroom. It’s not really a courtroom; it’s just a room. They don’t even pronounce the sentencing in front of them. So it has absolutely no legality whatsoever. Among the twelve thousand, there are about maybe eight thousand that are still in prison. A few thousand that have gotten suspended sentences because of a lot of pressure from groups like ours and other groups. And maybe less than two thousand have been exonerated. Some people have gotten an innocent verdict. Not very many, but usually they are either people who are prominent, or just not very poor, cases that have been in the public eye, cases where the people were very, very clearly innocent. Some of these cases are demonstrators and they were videotaped and you can see literally that they were just peaceful demonstrators, but these are very, very few of the cases.
LB: Who are these thousands of people that are being targeted by SCAF for the military tribunals and then incarceration?
SA: Well we have seen a very, very clear targeting of people of a lower socio-economic status. They have been the number one targets. It’s very clear that they want to terrorize this group of people, this faction of society, because they’re the most dangerous faction [to SCAF], because they are the largest faction of society and because they have the most to be outraged about; they have the most to revolt about. [The military] wants to put the fear of God in them by making them live with this sense of fear that at any moment they can be taken without due process and without having committed a crime and get thrown in prison, some for ten years, some for twenty years, and we’ve seen very harsh sentencing. And I think this is a way to terrorize people and put them back in their containers so that they don’t even think about the possibility of demonstrating or protesting or anything like that.
LB: How does your group, No Military Trials for Civilians, actually organize against these tribunals in Egypt, and what are you planning to do in the case of Essam Atta?
SA: First and foremost we try to disseminate information. The other thing we are always doing is talking to the media. We also provide pro bono or subsidized legal representation. So we have lawyers who we work with and we’re always talking to lawyers, we’re always recruiting lawyers that can help provide legal support to these families, since most of them are very poor and don’t know who to turn to for help. So that we will continue on, but when there is a case such as this one [Essam Atta], what we usually do is we try and disseminate information about it. We are discussing having a lawsuit against the people responsible, and we are trying to press for a transparent investigation [into this case.]
LB: Alaa Abd El Fattah is one of the most well-known bloggers and revolutionaries in Egypt. He is now in military detention. Can you tell me what happened?
SA: Well, Alaa was summoned by SCAF and he was accused of inciting violence on the day of the Maspero slaughter. When he was being questioned, he refused to answer any questions, due to the fact that he does not recognize the legitimacy of a military tribunal or any kind of military questioning as a legal institution.
LB: What makes this specific detention significant?
SA: Well this specific detention is significant, because Alaa has been, first of all, a victim of detention before, back in 2006. He is a very well known blogger; he is a revolutionary. He really, to a lot of people, represents the revolution. He is one of the people that laid the foundation for this revolution to happen. And he is an advocate of democracy and he’s been against military trials for a long time. It’s very ironic for someone so outspoken about military trials to be subjected to a military trial. He is a celebrity in his own right, within the activist community and within the public sphere. Many, many people know who he is because he’s been in the media, and he’s been on the streets and he’s been blogging for a long time and talking to people for a long time as an opposition figure.
LB: What has been the public reaction in Egypt to Alaa’s detention?
SA: A lot of the people that have heard of this, which is many, many people, are completely outraged at his detention and there have been marches, there have been demonstrations in front of where he is being held. People went and they were singing songs to him while he was in prison. People feel like they are being duped. People feel like that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is singing one song but their actions are completely contrary to their rhetoric.
LB: Why do you think SCAF is going on a rampage now? They have been non-stop in the past few weeks, in terms of stifling dissent. What is going on at this specific moment?
SA: Well SCAF, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is trying to impose itself on this country. They know that they are unwanted guests here. They know that they have no real legitimacy. They are trying to get legitimacy by oppressing people and by oppressing dissent. So, military trials are a mechanism; they are a tool to hold on to power as long as they can, preferably to them, forever. So this is why they keep saying that they’re going to end military trials, and yet they don’t end them. These are not trials; you can’t call them trials, they are a total sham. It’s unacceptable to call them military trials, it’s unacceptable to call them anything else than what they really are: an oppressive tool, the most important tool they are using, to scare people and to terrorize people. The crimes that are being committed by the army right now, I would say fall under high treason. They are making this country susceptible to total and utter destruction, because they are polarizing the country. They are accusing people of being spies, they are making Christians and Muslims hate each other, and they are murdering people, and they are killing people, they are running people over with tanks, conducting virginity tests…
LB: How is the military reacting when people are calling them out on their acts?
SA: Well their reaction is they say things that are untrue. They say things like we are investigating, [they are] investigating themselves. So, [regarding] Maspero, the investigative committee is a committee from the army that is investigating what the army did at Maspero. So [SCAF] uses this technique of doublespeak, so they will say what they think the public wants to hear. It’s downright lies and nobody is able to stop them. All we can do is call them on their lies and their deception. That’s all we’ve able to do and mobilize people to oppose them.
LB: This must be a really hard time for all of you. Alaa is the brother of Mona Seif, one of the other co-founders of No Military Trials for Civilians. How are all of you dealing with this right now and what are your next steps?
SA: Well, this is a really difficult time for us because Alaa is a good friend, he is a partner in this revolution and yes, his sister is one the founders of No Military Trials movement. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to put all our force behind him and trying to support him legally and trying to do a media campaign for him, although we didn’t really need to, because he is a public figure, so the media was interested anyway. He sacrificed himself, he refused to be questioned by SCAF so that we can use that, so we can use this momentum to wake people up and to make this into a bigger cause than it already was.
LB: Thank you so much.
SA: You're welcome.
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