Military trials for students spark concerns

A new law in Egypt allowing military trials for students accused of attacking university facilities has raised concerns among academics and rights advocates about freedoms in the country.

Earlier this month President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who temporarily holds legislative power, issued the controversial law authorising the army to join the police in protecting state institutions, including public universities.

Under the law, which has already been in effect for two years, these institutions are considered military installations and people who attack them will be put on a military trial – a measure condemned by civic rights groups as oppressive and unconstitutional.

The nation’s universities have been rocked by violent protests blamed on Islamist students since the new semester began on 11 October.

Egyptian authorities have recently taken a raft of tough measures, apparently to deter student protesters. They include a ban on political activities inside universities, and expulsion of students and lecturers found guilty of involvement in disruptive protests on campus.

Government loyalists have defended the measures, saying that they are aimed at restoring stability to higher education institutions that have been hit by trouble since the army toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last year.

Egypt has since seen a series of deadly attacks mainly targeting security troops.

A welcome step

“The army’s participation in securing universities is a welcome step,” said Yasser Sakr, president of the state-run Helwan University in southern Cairo.

“Universities have suffered in recent months from violence and theft. So, additional protection by the army will help secure these institutions.”

Denying that the latest law is an oppressive tool targeting dissidents on campuses, Sakr said: “Everyone in the university expresses his opinion freely. But there is a big difference between a peaceful expression of one’s opinion and subversion.”

The law was issued days after a bomb exploded outside Cairo University, the country’s biggest centre of learning, injuring 13 people. In April, a bomb blast near the university killed a senior police officer.

Some university administrators even hoped the disputed law would be issued earlier to deter what they call ‘saboteurs’ among students.

“Universities need such deterrent laws,” said Amin Lutfi, the president of Beni Suef University, a state-run institution in southern Egypt. “The recent law includes a proper punishment for saboteurs.

“At the same times, no-one should be worried about it because it [the law] is valid for only two years during which it will help stability to return to universities,” he told the independent newspaper Al Shorouk.

Student outcry

Some students disagree, however.

“This law is a continuation of the stringent measures taken by the state authorities against university students,” said Mahmoud Abul Nasr, a member of the Islamist Strong Egypt Party.

“This law threatens to turn universities into military barracks and robs them of independence. This will further increase tensions between students and the current regime.”

Since the start of the new semester, on-campus protests have often turned violent, prompting administrators to summon security forces to break them up. On several occasions, police clashed with students and detained dozens of them. No student has yet been referred for military prosecution.

Scope of military trials widened

Rights advocates say military trials are usually held behind closed doors and adopt hasty procedures that fail to ensure a fair trial.

“With this law, civilians face the threat of being tried before the military court if charged with throwing a single stone at a state institution, including the university,” said Abdul Ghaffar Shukr, a leftist politician and a pro-democracy campaigner.

“This law negatively affects political and civic rights as it expands the scope of military tribunals and their powers. Civilians should be tried before civil courts only.”

Photo credit: VOA. Student protest in Cairo last December.