Egypt’s armed forces must end the military trial of two journalists, release them immediately and unconditionally, and drop all charges against them, Amnesty International said as it named both men prisoners of conscience.
Amr Al Qazaz and Islam Farahat are to appear before the North Cairo Misdemeanour Military Court on 26 February 2014, on charges of illegally obtaining and publishing classified military documents and videos – including interviews with Egypt’s Defence Minister Abdel Fattah Al Sisi. If convicted, both men could face up to three years in prison.
“The two journalists are prisoners of conscience detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression by performing their jobs,” said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa Programme Director at Amnesty International.
“The Egyptian authorities must release them immediately and unconditionally, and drop all charges against them. Journalism is not a crime, and civilians, including journalists, should never face trial in military courts.”
The Egyptian military authorities maintain that the videos and documents – which the journalists allegedly published on the internet – could destabilize the security situation in the country.
According to Egyptian human rights lawyer Ahmed Helmy, the journalists’ case file alleges that the classified military information they published includes videos of the Defence Minister being interviewed by the Egyptian daily Al Masry Al-Youm as well as of a meeting he held with other senior military officials under his command.
The journalists are also accused of publishing 21 documents which include details of the government’s planned response to the banned Muslim Brotherhood’s attempt to defend its legitimacy and the legitimate rule of ousted President Mohamed Morsi.
Amr Al Qazaz’s family has told Amnesty International that plain-clothes armed security officers arrested him at his home on 12 November 2013. They searched his flat and confiscated his laptop, phones, camera, papers and books. Six days later, Military Intelligence officers reportedly arrested Islam Farahat on a Cairo street and took him away in a car with civilian licence plates.
The two men were taken to the Military Intelligence Unit in the Hadayek El Kubba area of Cairo, where they were held for at least 10 days while the military prosecutor carried out investigations. According to their families, they were blindfolded and handcuffed throughout their interrogation in the Military Intelligence office.
The imprisonment of Amr Al Qazaz and Islam Farahat is a violation of international and Egyptian law. The newly adopted Egyptian Constitution in its article 71 prohibits imprisonment in cases involving “crimes” related to publishing.
Both families told Amnesty International that they could not visit the two men until they were transferred from the Military Intelligence office to Al Mahkoum prison in Tora, reportedly on 25 November. At Al Mahkoum, Amr Al Qazaz was reportedly beaten, confined to a small cell with 11 other detainees, and had his blankets confiscated.
Lawyers representing Amr Al Qazaz and Islam Farahat did not receive a full copy of their case file until after the first trial hearing on 24 February, undermining their ability to prepare an adequate defence.
“Pending their release, the Egyptian government must allow Amr Al Qazaz and Islam Farahat access to their lawyers and families,” said Philip Luther.
Amr Al Qazaz and Islam Farahat were arrested in November 2013 on charges of revealing military secrets in case no. 3558/2013. The military prosecutor referred the case to the North Cairo Misdemeanour Military Court on 22 February 2013 and the trial was set to begin on 24 February 2013. On 24 February, the court postponed the trial to 26 February.
The current Egyptian Constitution adopted in January 2014 allows for the trial of civilians by military courts. It grants military courts jurisdiction over attacks on military personnel and military installations, camps, zones and borders. It also leaves the door open for the “law” to determine other possible crimes falling under the jurisdiction of military courts.
Under the Egyptian armed forces’ 17-month rule from February 2011 to June 2012, more than 12,000 civilians, including a number of journalists, were tried by military courts.
Such military trials continued during and after the rule of ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Since 2013, at least two journalists have faced military trials: Al-Masry Al-Youm correspondent Ahmed Abu Deraa and freelance journalist and blogger Mohamed Sabry were detained for respectively a month and a few days before both receiving six-month suspended prison sentences.
Amnesty International opposes the trial of civilians by military courts, which are fundamentally unfair and breach a number of fair trial safeguards, including the right to a fair and public hearing before a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law; the right to have adequate time to prepare a defence; the right to be defended by a lawyer of one’s choosing; and the right to appeal against conviction and sentence to a higher tribunal.