The release of 16 Islamists — some of whom were convicted in terrorism cases and others sentenced to death and life imprisonment — by a presidential pardon has stirred controversy in Egypt and raised questions about President Mohammed Morsi's priorities. This is especially so given the continued detention of a large number of youths of the revolution who had been tried in military courts for having participated in demonstrations after the toppling of former President Hosni Mubarak, while others remain [detained pending] further investigation.
While Morsi has formed a committee to look into the cases of civilians who were tried in military courts and release those who [are eligible], he issued a presidential decree pardoning the leaders of “Islamic groups,” some of whom had been on death row for years. This raised the ire of some youth forces, which demanded that Morsi treat the youths of the revolution equally as the leaders of Islamic groups.
But a source in the presidency told Al-Hayat that “the formation of this committee — in which Morsi was keen to include jurists and youths of the revolution — was a necessity in light of the growing numbers of civilians that have been referred to military courts, and the difficulty of determining which cases deserve to be released.” Revolutionary forces responded to such claims by pointing out that the lists of names of persons arrested in demonstrations are available and documented by several human rights groups.
Morsi assigned a committee headed by Judge Amin al-Mahdi — which comprises assistants to the Interior Minister, an official in the military judiciary, judges, law professors and jurists — to study this file and provide the presidency with the names [of detainees] eligible for release. The committee submitted a preliminary list of names with more than 570 names cleared for release, saying it is the first batch out of more than 2,000 civilians who stood military trials and whose cases will be examined successively.
Islam Lutfi, a member of the committee and leader of the Egyptian Current Party, complained in a press conference about “restrictions” exercised by the Ministry of Interior over the committee’s work. He said that “the Mubarak regime still rules on several levels.” He said that “the committee had to obtain their information from official sources, because the information that was available at civil society organizations about civilians convicted at military courts was not sufficient, and the military judiciary gave us more information.”
He added that “the military justice figures indicate that over 11,000 civilians have been tried at military courts since the outbreak of the revolution, 9,000 of whom were acquitted and 2,165 were convicted." He noted that “the committee, in the first sorting process, prepared a list of 870 cases it saw as eligible for release as a first batch, because they were convicted for crimes that do not violate the rights of individuals, but are primarily moral [in nature].”
He said: “The committee waited more than 10 days to receive security threat reports on the detainees from the Ministry of the Interior, but did not get any reply. After some time, the Ministry of Interior replied saying that there are [technical] problems with the databases. This prompted the committee to relay the issue to the presidency, which did absolutely nothing. Shortly after, the Ministry of Interior sent us names that are not included in our lists, saying those were wrongly convicted prior to the revolution and suggesting that we include them in our work. However, we rejected their suggestion, because the committee's work is limited to the period between the start of the revolution and the president’s taking office.” He added that “the Ministry of Interior sent conflicting reports about some names. Also, it did not object to the release of detainees it had described as extremely dangerous, which was rejected by the committee that eventually released close to 570 people.”
However, there has been no confirmation on the release of these batches since the names of those who were pardoned were not published in the Official Gazette. What’s more, none of the revolutionary youths referred to military courts have been released, as they are still being questioned.
Al-Hayat spoke with an official in the group called No To Military Trials, which investigates the fate of civilians prosecuted at military courts. The official, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “Thousands of civilians remain in prison after having received military trials.” He notes that “the group could not determine their exact number because new cases of detained civilians are discovered every day. The group is either contacted over the phone, or through released detainees who report the names of inmates they had met at prisons.”
He added that the group refused to deal with the committee set up by the president, because releasing civilians tried in military courts and allowing them to stand trial before a regular judge does not need a commission. The president is authorized to issue a decree ordering the release of civilians tried at military courts. He said that the formation of this committee is “an attempt to procrastinate in implementing the president’s pledges.”
The official expressed surprise that the presidential pardon decree was not published in the Official Gazette, including the names [of the pardoned detainees] and prisons they were detained in, which would allow the civil society institutions to trace them. He said that the information available to them indicates that a number of civilians tried in military courts have been actually released. However, whether all 570 detainees or the revolutionary youths arrested in connection with the events following Mubarak’s stepping down have been released is yet to be confirmed. It is known that the majority of the detainees are still being held pending further investigation. They have not been sentenced or included in the pardon decree either.
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