Military tribunal of detained Muslim Brotherhood members opens quietly
By Alexandra Sandels
First Published: April 27, 2007 CAIRO: A military tribunal of 33 detained top members of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) reportedly under deep secrecy at Heikstep Military Court Complex outside Cairo on Thursday morning. The trial, regarded as one of the largest military tribunals, was ordered by the military prosecutor on Wednesday following a criminal court decision to release some of the Brotherhood’s top figures currently in detainment, say members of the Brotherhood. The brief court session got off to a choppy start after only a single defence lawyer attended court, prompting the tribunal to postpone hearing defendants' pleas until June, security sources reportedly told Reuters. According to sources, the defense lawyers were not notified of the trial and learned from their clients. A number of lawyers are said to have boycotted the trial in protest. “We haven's been officially notified about this trial. The whole thing looks suspicious,” defense lawyer Abdel Moneim Abdel Maksoud told the Associated Press agency. Press and media were allegedly not allowed inside the court either, although officials confirmed that the tribunal had begun. “Just like the arrest decision, the trial is politically motivated. At this point, everyone knows that these opposition activists are innocent. They have been acquitted by civilian courts twice already. This is an attempt by the regime to capitalize on the silence of democracy advocates and to further silence pro-reform opposition groups in the country,” MB member Ibrahim El-Houdaiby told The Daily Star Egypt. Civilian courts have ordered the release of the movement’s third-ranking leader Khayrat El-Shater, and a number of his co-defendants twice recently. The first court order for their release was issued in January and the second came Tuesday. While the charges against the defendants have not been made public yet, El-Houdaiby says that El-Shater was arrested in December 2006 on charges of money laundering and terrorism. Shortly thereafter, the assets of 29 other MB members were frozen. “The accusations are ridiculous. Our members are accused of money laundering, while most of their companies date back to the 1950s and their sources of income are well known. Until this day the companies' papers have not been investigated. They are locked up at the company headquarters and the defense lawyers have not been granted access to them,” El-Houdaiby continued. Furthermore, El-Houdaiby claims that the detainees are accused of ‘attempting to revive the ideas of an outlawed organization’. “This accusation is outrageous as well. How come there are books representing these ideas available in bookstores all over Egypt? Why haven’t they been taken off the shelves,” he stressed. Both local and international human rights groups have criticized the Egyptian government for trying civilians before military courts, a practice the groups argue is harsh and gives unfair verdicts with no possibility of appeal other than asking the President for clemency. "Khayrat El-Shater and the other Muslim Brotherhood members should never have been arrested in the first place. Now that an independent court has said as much, the government is resorting to a military tribunal to deliver the desired verdict,” Elijah Zarwan of Human Rights Watch told The Daily Star Egypt. Military tribunals may become a common item in the Egyptian legal system following last month’s passing of a series of amendments to the constitution, which will allow the president to refer civilians to military courts. A new martial courts law approved last week allows for appeals to military court verdicts. Although, the move was interpreted as a cosmetic change by the opposition, the ruling NDP member of parliament Mohammed Khalil Kwaita defended the change. He told The Daily Star Egypt in a previous interview that “martial courts used to be untouchable and their decisions were final and nonnegotiable, but now they can be appealed.” A civilian court is due to rule next month on the legality of the decision to refer the 40 Islamists to military court, seven of whom are to be tried in absentia.