EGYPT: Government defends military trials, 'virginity tests' to human-rights advocates
Human-rights advocates on Tuesday demanded Egypt’s transitional military government end military trials and the country’s emergency law, release and retry imprisoned protesters and investigate the alleged torture of those in custody.
Over the last three days, Egyptian government officials meeting with representatives from New York-based Human Rights Watch promised to review the country’s civil-rights laws but also defended military trials and refused to acknowledge that security forces tortured those in custody, defending so-called virginity tests of female protesters.
“They justified the use of military tribunals by saying they used them in a very narrow way,” including “against thugs,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, after the meetings ended in Cairo. “They denied they had been using military tribunals against protesters.”
At least 5,600 civilians have been sentenced by military courts since former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down Feb. 11 and the military took over, according to Human Rights Watch. The group has been tracking the cases of at least five protesters sentenced by military courts and imprisoned. Scores more were jailed and released with suspended sentences, human-rights advocates said.
“In none of these cases were military trials justified,” Roth said, adding that military trials were “staining” the new government’s human-rights record.
Esam El Khateb, 53, was drawing political caricatures in Tahrir Square in February when he said security forces arrested, jailed and beat him with batons and electrical cords. A week later, Khateb was brought before a military court without a lawyer, convicted of breaking curfew and released with a three-month suspended sentence.
Now Khateb — a geologist from Suez — has hired a lawyer and is trying to get his sentence repealed and the guards who beat him prosecuted, “to bring me back my dignity and my own human rights.” Human Rights Watch officials have demanded that Egypt’s government retry all civilians sentenced by military courts in civilian courts.
Roth said it was not clear how committed the new government was to investigating and prosecuting members of the security forces for past abuses, given the refusal by officials, particularly those at the interior ministry, to acknowledge reports of torture.
Egyptian officials promised to investigate complaints of torture, but that approach is “too passive,” Roth said, especially since the public is still expected to file complaints at the same police stations where some claim to have been abused.
“We need transparent investigations of the torture cases, even if there is no complaint,” said Heba Morayef, Egypt representative for Human Rights Watch.
Egyptian officials claim to have overhauled the interior ministry’s State Security Investigations, or internal police, replacing 28 of 39 generals and renaming the agency the National Security Forces, Roth said. But the human-rights advocates pressed them to go a step further and investigate and prosecute those who allegedly tortured and supervised the torture of prisoners during the revolution, adding civilian oversight to the new agency.
“In order to really change an agency, it’s necessary to go after the supervisors who ordered the torture, not just the torturer,” Roth said, otherwise, “torture will simply rear its ugly head again and infect this new agency.”
Roth questioned a member of the country’s ruling supreme military council about “virginity tests” that female protesters claim they were subjected to while in custody March 9, which a general defended last month to CNN.
Roth said the official he spoke with, who asked not to be identified, defended the tests as a way of preventing women from claiming they were raped in custody but said security forces had been instructed to stop the tests, which Roth called “degrading” and “humiliating.”
Roth said it was particularly important to shore up civil-rights laws and enforcement ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next fall, to ensure free and fair elections.
“This is a moment of great opportunity for Egypt,” he said, “The key now is to take the steps necessary to form a real democracy.”
-- Molly Hennessy-Fiske in Cairo
Photos, from top: Riot policemen outside Egypt's Interior Ministry Monday, where demonstrators were protesting police brutality on the first anniversary of the death of 28-year-old Khaled Said, allegedly beaten by police in Alexandria. The beating, and pictures of Said's body later posted online, helped crystalize Egypt's political movement. Credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters. Esam El Khateb, 53, says security forces arrested, jailed and beat him. Credit: Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times