Rights advocates: Military arrest powers worrying

The military has been given broad powers to arrest civilians — powers that go beyond its mandate, lawyers from Egypt’s five leading human rights organizations said on Thursday.

Their statement comes in response to a decree issued by the Justice Ministry on 4 June that was made public on 13 June, stating that military officers, military police and war intelligence officers have the right to arrest civilians under the criminal procedures law.

“This decision is illegal. It is not within the military’s authority to arrest civilians, unless they are harming military property, like jets, submarines and military factories — not civilians that are violating criminal law, which is the job of the police,” said Mohamed Zaree, project manager at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, one of the participating organizations that filed today’s appeal.

“It gives the military broad search and arrest powers for a variety of activities that fall under the criminal code, such as damaging public property, strikes, and disruption to transportation through blocking the road, for example, as well as thuggery,” said Magda Boutros, criminal justice director at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, which also filed the case.

“It allows the military to continue interfering in the daily life of citizens,” she added.

The timing of the decree confirms the widespread suspicion that the military is looking to retain its powers beyond the scheduled handover to a civilian government at the end of June.

“It suggests the military won’t truly give up power to civilian rule, which is what we have been calling for, for the last year and a half,” said Aziza Hussein Fathy, a lawyer at the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR).

But not everyone sees it this way. Constitutional scholar Esam al-Islambouly justifies the decision in the independent newspaper Al-Shorouk as a means for the military to continue providing domestic security. “They have been given the power to issue arrest warrants just as the Justice Ministry gives it to public officials working in customs, taxes and those searching for violations,” he said.

Boutros and other lawyers, though, say this is exactly why it is illegal. Only public officials that have a professional role to investigate civil violations can arrest civilians, such as the tax authority, which can issue warrants of arrest for tax evaders, and police officers — but not the military.

The decree also means that the military can arrest those caught in acts deemed criminal by the criminal code without a warrant. The criminal code itself is criticized for being highly repressive of basic rights of expression. The military does need an arrest warrant in other cases, however.

It remains unclear whether those arrested will be referred to the general prosecution or military courts, Boutros said. Other lawyers stated they had strong suspicions that civilians will be tried directly under the military code, and therefore by military courts.

Lawsuit number 46282, of which Egypt Independent has a copy, has been jointly filed by ECESR, the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre and the United Office for Law Firms and Attorneys.

The suit is filed against Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces who has been presiding over Egypt’s transition, as well as the Defense Ministry. It is also against Justice Minister Adel Abdel Hamid, the public prosecutor, the head of the Military Judicial Authority, and the military attorney general.

A Muslim Brotherhood lawyer, Abdel Moneim Abdel Maqsoud, has also filed an appeal against the Justice Ministry’s decree. Islamists had been the primary target of civilian arrests by the military under the former regime, and have continued to speak out against it.

The April 6 Youth Movement has criticized the decree, saying that it shows the continuation of the “deep security state” in the country. But, it added, “every use of security, even if simple, strengthens our resolve, and increases our determination; it kills our fear, and shows your [SCAF’s] truly ugly face.”

The decision comes alongside a controversial ruling by the Supreme Constitutional Court deeming the Parliamentary Elections Law unconstitutional, and hence dissolving the Islamist-dominated Parliament. The power of legislation is now relegated to the SCAF.

The army has presided over a transition period widely criticized for human rights violations. Over 12,000 civilians have gone through military trials, many more than during former President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year rule, and many remain detained in military prisons.

“Adel Abdel Hamid represents the SCAF. He was the one who gave orders for the military police to storm the offices of NGOs in December,” said Zaree, referring to a crackdown that caused widespread fear of draconian measures being undertaken against civil society organizations.

The Justice Ministry’s decision is dated 4 June, only four days after Egypt’s 30-year state of emergency expired, which at the time was hailed as a small human rights victory. Its lifting meant that the police would no longer have the broad powers of arrest that gave them notoriety under Mubarak’s rule.

A group of 17 Egyptian human rights organizations issued a press release on 13 June calling the decision illegal, condemning it for being “a worse substitute than the state of emergency.”

The ruling undermines genuine steps towards security sector reform, and gives a continued role to the military in the management of political life, the statement says.

“This is a way to apply the state of emergency from the back door,” said Zaree.

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