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Military court sentences 253 civilians in absentia to life imprisonment

A military court in the coastal city of Alexandria issued lengthy prison sentences (ranging from three years to 25 years) against 452 civilians on Tuesday.

The civilians were convicted on charges of anti-regime violence in the Nile Delta Governorate of Beheira in August 2013, following the military-backed ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, and the forced dispersal of two pro-Morsi sit-ins in Cairo and Giza.

Initial criminal charges were leveled against 506 civilians, who were all accused of being members or supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, but the court later acquitted 54 of these defendants.

The state-owned Middle East News Agency reported that (from the total of 452 defendants), 207 civilians were grouped together in a first trial on charges of burning the Hawsh Eissa Police Station in Beheira. From these 207 defendants, 90 were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment, another 96 were issued jail terms ranging from five-15 years, while another 21 were acquitted.

In a second trial, 299 civilians were accused of storming and burning of the headquarters of the Beheira Governorate. From this second batch of defendants, 163 were sentenced in absentia to life imprisonment, 102 recieved sentences ranging from five-15 years in prison, one defendant was sentenced to three years in prison, while another 33 were  acquitted.

According to the Reuters news agency, other charges filed by military prosecutors specifically include the murders of six individuals in Beheira, conspiracy to murder others, breaking out prisoners, illegal possession of firearms, obstructing public transportation, destruction of public and private properties, as well as vandalism.

A host of mainstream media outlets covered this latest military verdict by denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood and their sympathizers as being terrorists.

However, the Brotherhood has sought to distance itself from such acts of violence, whilst repeatedly denying that its members were involved.

In a statement posted on their official website on Wednesday, the Brotherhood claimed that the claims of burning the police station and governorate offices in Beheira are “fabricated.”

According to this statement, this military court in Alexandria “meted out hundreds of severely exaggerated prison sentences against opponents of military rule, in a sham trial, on trumped-up politically motivated charges.”

The Brotherhood’s statement added that three of the defendants, who had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, were minors.

Since the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, tens of thousands of civilians have stood trial before military tribunals on a host of different charges.

In 2011, after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces assumed power from deposed President Hosni Mubarak, an estimated 12,000 civilians were arrested and forced to stand trial before military judges.

According to Human Rights Watch: “This is more than the total number of civilians who faced military trials during the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak and undermines Egypt’s move from dictatorship to democratic rule.”

The New York-based rights group called on the Egyptian State to retry the defendants before civilian courts, or release all civilian defendants who stood trial before military tribunals.

The international rights group argued that military trials of civilians “do not protect basic due process rights, and do not satisfy the requirements of independence and impartiality of courts of law. Defendants in Egyptian military courts usually do not have access to counsel of their own choosing and judges do not respect the rights of defense. Judges in the military justice system are military officers subject to a chain of command and therefore do not enjoy the independence to ignore instructions by superiors.”

Similar statements were issued by several international and Egyptian human rights organizations over the past four years.

Nonetheless, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has expanded the jurisdiction of these military courts over civilians since he assumed power over one year ago.

During just five months of Sisi’s first year in office, an estimated 3,000 civilianswere reportedly arrested and referred to trials before military courts.

Sisi’s presidential decrees which expand the powers of the military judiciary over civilians, were issued with the goal of protecting  “vital facilities,” including public utilities, railroads, roads and bridges, among others.

Following armed attacks and terrorist acts against such “vital facilities” in October, Sisi moved to classify them as military institutions via Presidential Decree 366/2014. The ruling regime argued that civilians involved in attacks against such facilities should be held accountable before military justice.

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