By Dina Zayed
CAIRO (Reuters) - Actor Aly Sobhy's trial in an Egyptian military court lasted just 20 minutes, hours after he was detained in March with more than 160 other protesters in central Cairo.
He was among a score of lucky ones acquitted of charges of "thuggery" after a campaign for their release. But he spent four days in custody and now questions the army's intentions.
"There are thousands of youth held in military prisons simply for the reason that they were on the street at the wrong time. It's a plan to dismantle the revolution. If they arrest some, others will be scared to go protest," he told Reuters.
Anger at the army's handling of the transition to civilian rule is growing. Demonstrators camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square say the army is taking too long to purge the system and end the corrupt practices of the Hosni Mubarak era.
Protesters cite the widespread use of military courts to try civilians, a common practice under the ousted president and since adopted by the army council led by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Mubarak's defense minister for two decades.
Even under Mubarak, civilians subjected to military trials were often suspects in security cases, particularly during an armed Islamist uprising in the 1990s, not common criminals.
Rights groups and activists say the wholesale use of military trials in the last few months calls into question the willingness of the army council, which took over after Mubarak resigned in February, to transform Egypt into a democracy.
The military says such trials are reserved for serious crimes and not to quash freedom of expression. But activists and rights groups point to at least six incidents of random arrests to disperse demonstrations in the past few months.
"The military has shown itself to be guilty of many of the same practices used under the Mubarak regime," said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center.
"Being condemned to prison for protesting is the complete opposite of what people are calling for in Tahrir Square."
Rights groups say the trials undermine the rule of law and hinder an orderly transition, arguing that it was better to use the civilian judicial system, despite its flaws and slower pace.
At least 10,000 civilians have faced military trials since the uprising that toppled Mubarak, according to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other rights groups.
Charges vary from petty theft to violent crime. Sentences can be tough. A shop-owner was sentenced to seven years in jail after a tribunal convicted him of stealing four pairs of shoes and a mobile phone card. He denied the charge.
The army accepts the principle, enshrined in international law, that military courts should not try civilians, but says they are needed temporarily to handle Egypt's security problems.
"No civilian should be tried in front of military courts," General Mamdouh Shaheen of the ruling military council told reporters. "But in this emergency situation ... military courts took the place of civilian courts until they were able to work."
In response to criticism, the generals have now offered a contact numbers for queries and complaints on past convictions. For Sobhy and others, such offers are inadequate.
"Their insistence on defending military justice is a problem," Adel Ramadan, a human rights lawyer with the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said. "This is a policy that the armed forces has adopted and it is not willing to give it up."
Military courts, which often deal with groups of five to 30 defendants in a single trial lasting 20 to 40 minutes, have given out sentences ranging from six months to 25 years, on charges of breaking a curfew, possession of illegal weapons, destruction of property, theft or assault.
TRIAL IN 30 MINUTES
Defendants in military trials, closed to the public, often have no access to counsel of their own choosing, except in high-profile cases such as the blogger Maikel Nabil, 26, sentenced to three years in prison for insulting the military establishment.
"My brother called me and told me his trial was about to start in 30 minutes. Where is the fairness in that?" Mark Nabil, the blogger's younger brother, said. He then alerted rights group and the media, and found counsel for his brother.
The military judge told Nabil's lawyers that the ruling had been postponed at their request and ordered them to leave the court. They later discovered he was convicted in their absence.
"The military council arrests anyone they feel like arresting, accuses them of being thugs, and in 10 hours, they can convict them to a three-year sentence," Mark Nabil said.
Rights groups say the trials undermine the civilian justice system during the transition period the army is overseeing.
"I regret the fact that there isn't more focus on the substance of transition," Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch said. "We are being left with a very serious legacy and a challenge to the rule of law and the independence of judiciary."
Under emergency laws that gave Mubarak's Interior Ministry sweeping powers of arrest, 10,000 to 14,000 people were incarcerated without fair trial. Rights groups worry that the laws are still being used to round people up unfairly.
"What we may have done is remove the ministry of interior and replaced it with the military," said Morayef.
A security vacuum soon after Mubarak's removal meant the military courts played a role in reimposing security, rights activists say, but question why their scope has expanded since.
Protesters say the army should have been pushing faster with trials of Mubarak, its former commander-in-chief, and members of his cabinet now charged with corruption and abuse of power.
In a bid to assuage anger, the army said on its Facebook page that military trials would be limited to "thuggery" cases involving weapons that "terrorized" citizens, rape, and "intentional attacks" on security.
Mona Seif of the No Military Trials for Civilians group says the catch-all "thuggery" charge has been used sweepingly.
"As long as military trials exist, they will find a way to suppress protests and threaten civilian liberties. It makes no difference because most accusations are fabricated," she said.
The military denies it has ever held protesters and says that it only arrests "thugs" seeking to sow rifts between the army and the people. But activists say military trials fuel mistrust of the generals and a lingering sense of injustice.
"Whether the council likes it or not, they will have to retreat from using military trials," Nabil said.
"The people that stayed in Tahrir for 18 days to topple Mubarak will stay just as long and longer to force the Field Marshal -- or anyone else seeking to impose their vision on the country -- onto the right path," he said.
(Editing by Edmund Blair and Alistair Lyon)