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Egypt shifts to military justice for civilians in post-Mubarak era

A 17-year-old was sentenced to death this week amid a wave of civilian cases tried by military tribunals in as little as five minutes. Under Mubarak, civilians rarely faced military tribunals.

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A military court in Cairo this week sentenced to death a 17-year-old boy, highlighting a disturbing trend in post-Mubarak Egypt: trying civilians in military courts.

The minor, whose death sentence is illegal under Egyptian law, is just one of as many as 20,000 Egyptians who have faced military tribunals since late January, when the Army took on an expanded role in securing and governing Egypt. Military courts have been used almost exclusively for criminal cases in Egypt since then, essentially replacing the civil justice system.

“Military tribunals have become, rather than the exception, the norm,” says Soha Abdelaty, deputy director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). “Everyone is susceptible to this.”

The exception now is former leaders like Interior Minister Habib Al Adly, who was tried in a civil court and therefore could choose his lawyer and prepare a defense. Normal Egyptians, however, are mostly held incommunicado in military detention, denied the chance to choose their lawyers, and sentenced after trials as short as five minutes.

Some of those detained are protesters. But the majority – and those who may be most vulnerable – are those tried for criminal offenses, like the 17-year-old, who was convicted in a military tribunal along with three adults for kidnapping and raping a woman.

“I think the biggest concern is for the non-protesters,” says Mona Seif, who has campaigned against military trials since February. “All of the people who do not have networks of support that activists have, are being neglected....” The few leaders willing to bring up the issue, she says, talk only about political detainees.

Under Mubarak, military courts rarely used for civilians

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