Scientist, students jailed amid rise in military trials

An Egyptian military court has handed down varying jail terms of five to seven years to a university lecturer and seven students for holding an illegal protest – the latest rulings in an increasing number of military trials involving civilians.

The court recently sentenced Dr Abdul Dayem Sherif, an Islamist science professor at the state-run Mansoura University, to five years in prison on charges of illegal protesting and belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The court in the Nile Delta province of Mansoura also sentenced seven students detained in the same case to seven years in prison each on similar charges. The eight were arrested last June following an anti-government protest.

The verdicts can be appealed.

Waves of protests and arrests

Egypt has seen a wave of Islamist-led protests in universities since the army’s 2013 overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, himself a former university professor.

Scores of lecturers and students have been referred to military prosecution since last October when President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi – who temporarily holds legislative authority – issued a controversial decree expanding the powers of military courts.

The decree empowers military tribunals to try civilians accused of attacking state institutions, including universities. Under the law, valid for two years, state institutions are considered military installations and thus come under the jurisdiction of military courts.

The move has drawn heavy criticism from local and foreign rights groups, who believe the decree is aimed at gagging dissent.

The Egyptian government has defended the measure, saying it is necessary to re-establish security in the country after four years of unrest since a 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ uprising that forced long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak out of power.

The Egyptian authorities have taken a series of tough measures to deter student protesters, including a ban on political activities and expulsions of students and lecturers found guilty of involvement in on-campus protests.

According to the local non-governmental group, Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, the police’s forcible break-up of student gatherings and storming of opposition students’ houses have been systematic since the academic year started in Egypt in mid-October 2014.

Harsh sentences for students

The group reported that Egypt’s military courts last month handed down harsh sentences to university students on politically motivated charges.

In March, a Cairo-based military court sentenced 10 students from the state-run Ain Shams University to life imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 Egyptian pounds (about US$13,100) each for holding unauthorised protests, rioting and attacking public institutions.

The rights group said the sentences were issued without the knowledge of the defendants and their lawyers.

Another military court imposed a two-year jail sentence and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds on a science student at Mansoura University after convicting her of participating in an illegal protest on campus and unlawfully possessing a firearm.

This tribunal will resume the trial of four students and Mohamed Saad, an assistant professor at Mansoura University’s medical school, who are charged with holding illegal protests.

There are no official figures on the number of students and lecturers tried before military courts in Egypt. However, pro-democracy campaigners claim that hundreds of civilians have been referred to these tribunals since October.

Activists have launched online campaigns, pushing for an end to the military prosecution of civilians. Critics say military trials are usually held behind closed doors and adopt hasty procedures that do not guarantee a fair trial.

“Militarising the trials of civilians, including children, is taking Egypt in the wrong direction,” said Sarah Leah Whitson of the Human Rights Watch.

“President al-Sisi should repeal his October decree before more damage is done, if he has any concern for preserving Egypt’s reputation and the new constitution he has sworn to protect.”

Egypt’s military courts operate under the authority of the Ministry of Defence, not the civilian judicial authorities.

Proponents say the swift verdicts of military courts are a deterrent and can be appealed.