CAIRO — Before the pro-democracy movement’s demonstrations swelled the streets of this city and ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Amr El-Beheiry was a 32-year-old factory worker who hailed from Nile Delta and was proud of his large and very close family.
El-Beheiry struggled like most Egyptians, but his family says he kept a simple dream of being able to afford an apartment and to save enough to finance a modest wedding. He minded his own business.
But like hundreds of thousands of Egyptians El-Beheiry found himself swept up in the momentum of history and he took to the streets to join the protests that began January 25, 2011 and 18 days later resulted in the downfall of Mubarak. El-Beheiry continued to challenge authority — newly empowered, his family says, by the idea of a better future. On Feb. 25, he was arrested along with dozens of other protesters in front of the building where Egyptian cabinet meets.
El-Beheiry has the unfortunate distinction of being among the very first civilians arrested under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the governing body made up of generals that was given executive authority in Egypt during the transition to a newly elected government.
As a result, he was among the first of some 12,000 civilians to be brought before a military tribunal under the country’s so-called “Emergency Laws.” This process routinely suspends a civilian’s right to a fair trial and human rights activists fear it is an old ploy of the Mubarak regime which is once again being used to crush dissent. El-Beheiry has been badly beaten in prison, held incommunicado and sentenced to five years on what his family and lawyers say are trumped-up charges of breaking curfew and assaulting a soldier.
He was sentenced at a court hearing that was never announced to the family and which not even his lawyers were permitted to attend.
Mubarak used the “Emergency Laws” for decades to circumvent the civilian justice system and was criticized by international human rights groups for years for doing so. But in three decades of Mubarak’s autocratic rule, there were only 2,000 cases of civilians being tried by military courts. In just ten months of SCAF taking control of the country, there have been six times that many.
Human Rights Watch released a report this week to mark the anniversary of the "January 25 Revolution" in Egypt that highlighted SCAF’s use of these “Emergency Laws” and to call for the newly elected parliament to make it a legislative priority do away with this web of laws that curb free expression, limit the right to assembly and restrict just about any form of opposition to the ruling government. Egypt’s newly elected lower house of parliament, known as the People’s Assembly, will sit for the first time Monday.
In the 46-page report titled “The Road Ahead: A Human Rights Agenda for Egypt’s New Parliament,” Human Rights Watch sets out nine areas of Egyptian law that most need reform if the law is “to become an instrument that protects Egyptians’ rights rather than represses them.”
Amid the call for a change in Egypt’s laws to end the practice of military trials, El Beheiry’s case has become a cause célèbre, launching a popular, national movement known as “No Military Trials.” Bumper stickers and street graffiti supporting the movement can be seen everywhere.
The movement has begun to affect change: three days before the first anniversary of the revolution, and with rising fears of anti-military protests across the country, SCAF announced that Marshall Mohamed Hussien Tantawi signed a pardon decree for 1959 prisoners who have been sentenced by military tribunals. El-Beheiry is not among them.
The news comes less than two weeks after Marshall Tantawi denied the use of military trials in a meeting with former US president Jimmy Carter, who held extended meetings with top Egyptian officials, heads of political parties and NGOs after the Carter Center participated in what they described as “witnessing the Egyptian parliamentary elections.”
The sudden change in the military's stance did not surprise the activist community nor did it slow their preparations for wide-scale protests.
This is how El-Beheiry’s ordeal began.
As the soldiers moved in to arrest him, he was severely beaten. Leila Soueif, one of Egypt’s prominent human rights activists, saw this unfold and intervened. She had never met El-Beheiry but Soueif is the grandmother and matriarch of a family with a long history of opposition to the Mubarak regime. She insisted that she would not leave the scene of the protest without this young man whom she saw unfairly arrested and savagely beaten with her own eyes.
He was temporarily released, only to be apprehended again and then taken into a netherworld of military prisons and a military court system which human rights activists here say is systematically denying civilians their basic right to a fair trial.
Soon after his arrest, the movement “No Military Trials” was started by the daughter of the long-time human rights activist who first tried to help El-Beheiry in Tahrir Square when he was originally detained. Mona Seif said that her mother’s actions on behalf of El-Beheiry and the quick succession of others cases like it forced her to realize that “the detention of protesters by military personnel was systematically happening in the back stage of the revolution.”
Seif is a 25-year-old researcher at a breast cancer research center run by Cairo University. Just like El-Beheiry, the January 25 uprising turned her into a hard core female activist who refused to surrender her cause despite security intimidation, detention, brutality and the risk of losing her job.
The Egyptian military, which was originally celebrated as heroic defenders of the revolution, has shown very different colors in recent months, according to Seif and growing chorus of criticism across Egyptian society.
“They (the military) pretended to defend the revolution, and they continued with the same suppressive practices we revolted against,” says Mona Seif.
Amr El-Beheiry’s family also stepped up to highlight his case. They filed around 300 complaints and requests for a retrial over the past year. And then his family was told that he would finally be permitted to stand retrial. But they say they were never told of the trial date. To date, El-Beheiry remains in El-Wadi El-Gedid prison compound, a maximum security facility located in Egypt’s western desert, around 500 kilometers from the capital Cairo.
El-Beheiry’s brother, Mohammed, told GlobalPost that the family is kept completely in the dark as to any of his legal proceedings. He said they are worried about Amr’s well-being after getting a glimpse at what his brother suffered in military detention.
“When I first visited him he was injured and left untreated, his head injury was infected because of the lack of medical attention in jail,” said Mohammed.
But this was not the only case of brutality at the hands of the military. Hundreds of other physical abuse cases were documented over 11 months of military rule, human rights activists say.
The case of El-Beheiry and around 9000 others since February 2011 has brought the ruling generals of Egypt under fiery criticism and raised questions about their intentions toward the ongoing revolution.
"No Military Trials," the initiative inspired by El-Beheiry’s detention, has organized dozens of protests against the ongoing violation of human and civil rights, but their efforts seem to have little influence on the policies of the SCAF’s ruling generals.
Ragia Omran, an Egyptian female activist and lawyer specializing in military trials of civilians said that torture has been “consistently used toward those detained by military police.” She says that physical abuse was documented in almost all protests and strikes dispersed by the military “on March 9, April 9, Israeli Embassy protests, May 15, June 28, September 9, the last week of November and mid-December when they dispersed the sit-in beside the cabinet building.”
Most of those detained by the military police were stripped of their legal rights and according to Omran, “The case is usually built on a reports filed by arresting officers, reports that normally don’t include any details or substantial evidence.”
The European Parliament issued a statement on November 17 after the detention of Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah.
“The European Parliament calls for the immediate release from prison of Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El-Fattah and reiterates its call to stop prosecution of civilians by military courts in Egypt,” said the official statement.
The blogger who was detained on charges of stealing military weapons, attacking government facilities and killing a soldier decided not to answer to military prosecutors. His boycott continued for three consecutive questioning sessions before he reached an unprecedented success and was referred to a civilian criminal court along with over 60 other detainees.
There has been a significant decrease in use of military trials against civilians in recent months, but more than 9000 prisoners continue to serve time.
“Military trials of civilians have not stopped yet; however, there has been a significant decrease in the cases reviewed by the Military Prosecution since the events of Israeli Embassy on September 9,” said the lawyer and human rights activist Ragia Omran.
Omran thinks the decrease in military trials for civilians “was achieved by the combined efforts of local protesters, the media, and international organizations that harshly criticized the practice.”
While the cases are being highlighted, what actually goes on inside the prison walls is largely unknown.
But Abul Maati Ahmed provided a glimpse.
He is one of the few who recently stood retrial and were released, and he was interviewed by GlobalPost.
He was first detained on February 2, 2011 trying to bring food and supplies to a tent in Tahrir Square where his family was gathered in support of the protest movement. This was before the fall of Mubarak and 5 days after Egypt’s army took to the streets, for the first time in decades, to, as the generals put it, “defend the revolution.”
“I was deported to the Military Prison, I was tortured along with other detainees for four continuous days, we were offered no food during that time, some detainees collapsed and were carried away, I believe some of them died,” said Abul Maati.
Once again, Abul Maati confirmed how theatrical those trials were. “I saw a prosecutor for less than 15 minutes, he asked me a few questions after which I was dismissed,” he said.
The confused detainees who all experienced similar brief questioning sessions were deported once more to a different prison. “When we arrived in prison I asked what will happen next, a prison worker told me I was transferred to serve a five years jail term.”
Behind the maximum security walls of El-Wadi El-Gedid prison, Abul Maati and his fellow protesters turned inmates decided to go on hunger strike. On the tenth day they were informed by the prison administration that they were pardoned by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
“We broke the hunger strike and waited to hear the news of our release. We found out that they lied to us. They threatened us not to think of a hunger strike anymore, or else we will be tortured,” said Abul Maati.
Back in his hometown of Shalakan, a small agricultural town north of Cairo, Abul Maati’s father, Ahmed Abu Arab, started his hunger strike to protest the detention of his son, while the brother and other family members continued to file complaints and requests for a retrial. On the tenth day of his hunger strike, the unhealthy old man was rushed to hospital after he collapsed.
Abul Maati was finally granted a retrial in mid October. He stood a second military trial in November that sentenced him to six months in jail for breaking curfew. And he was released based on the nine months he had already served.
He emerged from the prison to find out that he had lost his job at the Egypt Gas Company. Requests to the company to allow him to retain his job were in vain.
The healthy athlete and martial arts champion came out of prison a heavy smoker; he vowed to return to Tahrir Square, where he was first detained.
“I will be protesting in Tahrir Square on the anniversary, prison will never make me surrender what I came out for last year,” said Abul Maati.
He described his experience behind bars as “the reality of the Egyptian military,” which pretended to defend the revolution but “targeted the youth who fueled it.”
“It is the biggest betrayal I have ever experienced.”
The heavy strain that the military imprisonment and tribunals caused Abul Maati and his family, particularly his father who fell ill, is a familiar story among the thousands of detainees still in prison.
This stress has certainly taken a toll on Amr El-Beheiry’s father.
Abdalla El-Beheiry suffered a stroke, his family says, after hearing that his son, Amr, was permanently fired from his job while serving his sentence.
And while thousands of protesters demanded reform and chanted against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the now bed-ridden father found himself begging officers at the Military Judiciary Department to pardon his jailed son or allow him to stand retrial.
On January 10, El-Beheiry's appeal for a retrial was accepted. The old man still clings to a hope that his son might be released and return to his job. He waits to see if the retrial will really take place. But the father has been rendered mute by the effect of the stroke and is unable to say how he feels about the slight hope that his son may be released.
“My father just couldn’t tolerate the news,” said Amr’s brother, Mohamed.