Fate of detainees is early test for Egypt leader

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 04, 2012 12:28 PM
Fate of detainees is early test for Egypt leader

By Shaimaa Fayed

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptian revolutionaries impatient for the release of protesters jailed by military courts piled pressure on new President Mohamed Mursi on Wednesday as he tried to forge a government strong enough to make a difference to a frustrated population.

The popular uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak last year delivered Egypt's first free leadership vote but sparked an economic crisis and a chaotic spell of army rule that saw thousands of civilians given military trials and thrown in jail.

The generals handed the presidency to Mursi on Saturday but are likely to keep swathes of the state under their control, curbing the Islamist president's influence over the army, the police and the judiciary.

During his election campaign, Mursi pledged to uphold the cause of those who died trying to topple Mubarak, whose regime was protected by an unaccountable, heavy-handed security apparatus.

"We need a clear answer from Dr. Mohamed Mursi," activist Ahmed Domma told reporters in a street facing the presidential palace on Wednesday. "Is he a president with full powers and the right to free the detained, or is the matter in the hands of the military council, just as it was before?"

Many Egyptians are tired of political upheaval since the uprising and hope a Mursi presidency will first bring stability. But the youthful activists who led the revolt against Mubarak believe their revolution is far from over.

They believe a deep-rooted establishment has tightened its grip while nominally handing power to Mursi, a suspicion reinforced by a decree issued before a presidential run-off vote that restored the military's right to arrest civilians.

They are dismayed that no senior police officer has been jailed for the killing of around 850 protesters during the uprising. Mubarak and his former Interior Minister Habib el-Adli were both given life sentences for their roles in the deaths.

Mursi has promised to form a committee comprising members of the military judiciary, the interior ministry and the public prosecution to consider the release of protesters who took part in anti-military protests since the uprising.

For the die-hard revolutionaries, the announcement showed that Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood, a socially conservative movement which only joined the uprising once it was well under way, was more interested in power than civil rights.

More than 20 revolutionary groups issued a statement on Wednesday giving Mursi five days to answer a question: "Is he a president for the Egyptian people and will he release the detainees as he promised?"


Around 16,000 civilians, including children, were tried by military courts behind closed doors last year - more than in Mubarak's entire rule, according to rights groups.

Shahira Abouellail, co-founder of campaign group "No to Military Trials", estimated that between 8,000 and 10,000 were still being held, although it was a loose estimate because there were no official figures.

"The issue does not need a committee," she said. "We know that some of those who have been tried in military courts could indeed be criminals, but how would we know if there is no real investigation, if there is no due process?"

"If Mursi says he's a revolutionary president, then he needs to fulfil one of the major demands of the revolution which is to deal with the situation of the detainees," said Abouellail.

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Protesters previously jailed by military courts gathered in front of the presidential palace to recount their experiences on Wednesday, joined by the parents of civilians still held in military jails.

Tarek al-Wadeea's son, an army officer, was arrested in April last year after joining demonstrators demanding that Mubarak and his close associates face trial.

"Since March 11 my son has, even more sadly, been put in solitary confinement in Alexandria to damage his mind," said Wadeea, who carried a large poster bearing an image of his son.

As Mursi strives to form a cabinet to replace the unpopular outgoing army-backed administration, his presidential palace in an upmarket Cairo neighborhood has begun to rival Tahrir Square as the chosen theatre for popular protests.

Ordinary Egyptians were never allowed near the palace under Mubarak, who gradually fell out of touch with the population during three decades in power.

Mursi, keen to show a break with his autocratic predecessor, has relaxed security to allow citizens to air their grievances at the palace gates and occasionally enter the grounds.

Near the group demanding the release of civilians jailed by the military, hundreds of unemployed graduates and factory workers were demanding that Mursi find them jobs.

"Where is the justice, o Minister of Justice?" they shouted.

(Writing by Tom Pfeiffer; Editing by Andrew Heavens)