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Innocence behind bars: The fate of Egypt’s minors at the mercy of criminal and military courts
 
 

Living out a nightmare behind bars among criminals and dangerous convicts, Aser has been waiting for a miracle since he was arrested at dawn on January 12, 2016 .

Before that cold winter’s day, Aser Zahr Eddin’s life was divided between school, painting and playing handball with a well-known sporting club’s under-17 team. Then security forces burst into his parents’ home in the Giza neighborhood of Faisal, when he was 15 years old.

Aser’s family heard no news of him until 33 days after he had “disappeared,” as his name was put on the list of terrorists in Egypt, according to Aser’s responses to the prosecution’s questioning later on.

His trial is currently playing out before the Giza Criminal Court’s terrorism circuit. He is moved back and forth between the courthouse and Giza Central Prison, recently built in the Central Security Forces training camp in the desert outside 6th of October City, southwest of Cairo.

The charge against him  joining a terrorist organization violates the child law, according to his lawyer, Mokhtar Mounir of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.

Nearly 3,200 minors, all under 18, have been imprisoned by Egyptian authorities since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted on June 30, 2013. All have been imprisoned with adults, and some have been subjected to torture, according to a report published by the Egyptian Coordination of Rights and Freedoms in August 2015.

They are paying the price for a loophole in the child law, which sets out the conditions for the detention of children: The prosecution can transfer juveniles to criminal courts if at least one person over 18 years old participated in the charge under investigation.

But the detention of minors violates several legal frameworks, including Article 119 of the law in which the loophole originates. According to the child law, the temporary incarceration of a child under 15 is prohibited.

“A child who has not reached 15 years of age shall not be placed in temporary custody,” the law states. “The Public Prosecution may place him in one of the observation centers, for a period not exceeding one week, and shall make him available upon each request if the circumstances of the case necessitate keeping him in custody. However, the period for keeping the child in custody shall not exceed one week unless the court decides to extend the period according to the regulations for temporary custody as stipulated in the Criminal Procedure Code.”

Article 80 of Egypt’s Constitution, meanwhile, mandates that the government set up a separate judicial system for minors, ensuring that they are detained in suitable spaces and separated from adults.

In 1990, Egypt also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37 of which stipulates that “No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily. The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall be in conformity with the law and shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”

A judge at an Egyptian criminal court who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity says that the loophole “puts whether a child is tried before criminal courts or transferred to a juvenile court at a judge’s discretion.”

But the same law, according to the judge, “gives the court the right to examine the child’s circumstances from all angles before it issues a sentence. And it can call in experts as it sees fit. It can also refuse to issue a ruling due to not having proper jurisdiction, choose to transfer the case to an juvenile court, or release the child to their parents.”

This opinion is supported by the innocent verdicts that criminal courts have issued to minors, including that issued by the head of terrorism circuit 15, led by judge Shaaban al-Shami, to release the child Ammar Alaa Hasan to his family. Ammar was jailed in January 2016 and remained under temporary incarceration until he was found innocent on June 4, 2017 of charges of protesting, joining a terrorist organization and possessing explosives.

For over four months, Mada Masr followed 35 cases of minors who have appeared before criminal and military courts, and met over 10 minors who have finished serving criminal sentences of between one to three years in adult prisons. Article 141 of the child law mandates that minors should be incarcerated in a space specifically designed for minors, namely the penal institution in Al-Marg.

The ages of the minors ranged from 14 to 17 years old, while their sentences ranged from three to 10 years. Most of them spent periods in temporary detention – from 900 to 1,500 days – before they received a sentence. Three of five minors standing before military courts were found innocent. At the close of August, another minor had completed his full three-year sentence.

Among the minors Mada Masr tracked, three from Minya Governorate were given death sentences, which were eventually annulled and retrials granted. Aser was one of these three. He was presented to the prosecution for the first time on February 13, 2016, but his lawyer says his interrogation occurred without the presence of legal council.

Aser’s lawyer submitted a request that his client undergo a forensics examination to verify that he had been tortured and to have Aser transferred to a correctional facility, in accordance with the child law. The prosecution did not grant the request.

Aser’s parents were surprised to learn that he had been transferred in October 2016 to the Giza Criminal Court’s terrorism circuit, headed by judge Nagy Shehata, who has issued 204 death sentences and 274 life sentences since taking the position in December 2013. The Court of Cassation has annulled some of these sentences and retried defendants.

Aser is one of several defendants being tried in Case 45/2016 by the Supreme State Security Prosecution. The trial’s proceedings are conducted in near secrecy, in violation of Article 268 of the Criminal Procedure Code. The sessions are held inside the Police Academy, in the desert of New Cairo, where the lecture halls have been turned into courtrooms. The defendants are held in a soundproof glass cage, and Shehata has barred anyone but defendants’ lawyers from attending, meaning journalists and family members are absent.

The court has not adhered to the exception in Article 122 of the child law, which stipulates that a minor may be tried before a criminal or state security court if he or she was over 15 years old when the crime was committed. This does not apply to Aser, as he completed his fifteenth year while in detention.

The violations in Aser’s case did not end there. Mounir, his lawyer, told Mada Masr that Aser’s name was placed on the list of terrorists and terrorist entities in October 2016, but that Mounir was not informed. The verdict was published in the Official Egyptian Gazette dated May 29, 2017, months after the court issued it.

To place an individual on the list of terrorist entities, according to anti-terrorism law issued by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in February 2015, results in a “travel ban and high alert for arrival, the confiscation or revocation of one’s passport, or the refusal to issue a new one, as well as the loss of the condition of good reputation necessary for jobs, public positions or prosecution positions.”

Charges of terrorism en masse

Since July 2013 nearly 60,000 Egyptians have been arrested and detained, according to the report “There is room for everyone” published by the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information. Egyptian authorities have neither confirmed nor denied this number.

Minors have not been safe from the severe political polarization post-2011, according to Mohamed Ahmed, the head of the legal unit in the Egyptian Coalition on Children’s Rights. After Morsi was ousted in 2013, the scope of arbitrary arrests broadened to include minors, often arrested for coincidentally walking near areas where protesters were marching. “The Interior Ministry did not differentiate between a protester and a non-protester, and therefore many were arrested on their way home or to tutoring lessons,” Ahmed says.

Ahmed thinks that the political and media climate has influenced the courts. “Courts presented with the police and prosecution’s investigation documents have not been willing to give children special consideration or look into their cases, although they could have been victims or politically exploited,” he says.

***

On Saturday, July 15, 2017, inside the criminal court building on Alexandria’s corniche, the Montazah Criminal Court adjourned the trial of four minors to November 2017 because of the absence of a judge. The parents of the four minors were disappointed, as they had hoped the court date would bring an end to “three years of torture” since the case began on January 3, 2014.

Two days after he turned 18, MA was arrested on the afternoon of Friday January 3, 2014, as security forces were dispersing Muslim Brotherhood supporters in the Alexandria neighborhood of Montazah. MA was on his way home from a football match when he was arrested, according to his father and his lawyer. Three other children passing through the same area were also arrested on January 3: HN and AY, who were born on January 1, 1996, and MO, who was born in 1998. MO was released when his name was included in a presidential pardon on June 23, 2017.

Alongside nine others, MA, HN, AY and MO faced a long list of charges including “disrupting public peace and security, joining a banned terrorist organization, forming roadblocks, protesting without permission, carrying out acts of violence, intimidating citizens and vandalizing public property,” according to the case files of the Montazah Police Department and first administrative area of the Montazah prosecution, copies of which Mada Masr acquired.

After the children had been detained in a juvenile care facility in Alexandria’s Kom al-Dikka Prison for five months, the prison administration transferred them and 44 other minors to Al-Marg correctional facility near Cairo on June 4, 2015, according to their families.

The children objected to the transfer decision because the correctional facility has a notorious reputation and their trial was taking place in Alexandria, the parents of three of the children told Mada Masr at a meeting in Alexandria.

***

In September 2017, AK turned 21. Many of his peers were finishing their undergraduate studies, but AK had been arrested before he turned 17.

He had been with his uncle at the home of a family friends, his mother, a lawyer in Alexandria, told Mada Masr. At the time, AK was second-year high school student and he was able to complete his high school diploma despite the detention conditions and transfers between Kom al-Dikka Prison, the correctional facility in Al-Marg, Borg al-Arab Prison and the maximum security Tora Prison, where he is currently being held.

AK finished the courses a student would finish in their second year in 2015, and then divided his last five high school subjects. He finished three in 2016 and two in 2017, and passed all of them. AK had hoped to study engineering, but his mother failed to find a private university that would allow him to sit for exams while in detention. In the end, he joined the faculty of commerce at the Modern Academy in Cairo’s Maadi neighborhood.

Along with MA, HN, AY and MO, he had objected to the transfer from Alexandria’s Kom al-Dikka Prison. AK was charged with joining a banned group and tried in Case 101/2014 by the Amreya Second Administrative Court. After 11 months’ detention he was released, but then found himself accused in another case. The time the charges were for inciting riots and harassing police officers (Case 2580/2014 under the Attareen Criminal Court).

The charges stemmed from his objection to being transferred from Kom al-Dikka. After two children protested the prosecution’s decision, 20 minors, including AK, HN, AY, MO and MA, were accused of inciting riots and harassing police on the job. The case was taken up by the criminal court of Alexandria, and they were each sentenced to three years in prison on March 17, 2016.

AK served the whole sentence, and was supposed to be released on June 25, 2017. But he was surprised to learn he was now a defendant in a more serious case than the previous two. This time he was to stand before a military court on charges of joining a terrorist group aiming to undermine the state.

There have been at least 86 minors among the 7,420 Egyptian citizens convicted by military courts since October 2014, according to Human Rights Watch. The trials of minors before military courts has increased since Sisi issued a law on October 27, 2014 which allowed anyone who attacked a state institution to be tried before a military court.

The law, which was meant to be in force for two years and faced widespread criticism from rights organizations, put all public institutions, such as electricity stations, gas lines, oil wells, railroads and highway networks, under the authority of the Armed Forces. Anyone charged with attacking them would thus have to stand before a military court. After the law elapsed in 2016, the government asked Parliament to extend it for two more years. But in August 2016 Parliament changed course and decided to extend the law for five years.

On August 25, 16-year-old Seif Osama Shousha finished a three-year sentence handed down to him in addition to a LE50,000 fine by the Ismailia Military Criminal Court.

The details of his case (Case 359/2014) go back to August 3, 2014. Seif, who was born on November 10, 1998, was arrested on Saidi Street in the Damietta Governorate. He was returning home after a celebration with friends for passing the third year of middle school with a 93 percent mark.

“It seems that there was a protest on the street, and police were spread out everywhere,” his father told Mada Masr. “After his arrest, he was assaulted by police until his clothes were soaked with blood.”

Security forces held Seif inside the New Damietta Police Station, accusing him of protesting without permission, attacking government institutions and obstructing roads. On the morning of his arrest, Seif had taken an advanced placement entrance examination for a military high school, his father says. But the next day, Seif was presented to the prosecution with blood-soaked clothes and a bruised face.

“The prosecutor did not care for that and decided to detain him for 15 days pending investigations,” Seif’s father said. “His detention was renewed by the prosecution nine times, each for 15 days, before the case was referred to a military court.” Mada Masr was not able to confirm the father’s statement that the prosecutor ignored his son’s injuries.

In the second month of Seif’s time behind bars, the school year began. Eleven days in, he was suspended from school due to his absence.

Seif spent the first days of his detention at the New Damietta Police Station. He then spent 41 days at the Kafr Saad Police Station, followed by 14 months at the Faraskur Police Center in Damietta. None are designed to detain minors.

Seif was then transferred to Al-Marg correctional facility, where he spent the next year, until he turned 18, at which point he was sent to Gamasa Prison in the Daqahlia Governorate.

During his time in the Faraskur Police Center, he insisted on completing his studies and passed his first year of high school. At Al-Marg, he was able to pass his second year of high school. His father then decided to postpone work on study for his final year until his release. With the release date approaching, Seif’s father booked intensive tutoring sessions so he could start straight away.

Mada Masr tried to contact the National Council For Childhood and Motherhood throughout this investigation, but has not received any response to a request to meet Maisa Shawky, the vice minister of health and population and the general supervisor of the council. The council also did not reply to questions emailed to its consultant Sabry Othman.

Margaret Azer, a member of Parliament’s Human Rights Committee, told Mada Masr that she refuses to accept that there is a loophole in Egypt’s child law. She insists that the legislation on the trial of minors before criminal courts does not need to be altered.

Azer described criticism as the “attempts of organizations funded from abroad to read too much into laws for unpatriotic purposes.” She stated that Parliament routinely looks into the state of all prisoners in Egypt, including minors charged in criminal cases, to examine their situations according to the law and the Constitution.

“The terrorism and security situation necessitates the support of the police and the military,” Azer said.

But over the last three years minors in Egypt have faced worsening detention conditions, which have contradicted the legal provisions of the child law. These violations have robbed hundreds of their futures, including Aser, who has now been in temporary detention for two years. As he awaits a decision on his fate before the Giza Criminal Court’s terrorism circuit, Aser’s family said they hope the judge considers him as a minor who was not yet 15 when the crime was committed, rather than as a criminal whose name is on the terrorist list.

*Note: This piece has been edited since it was originally published.

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Mahmoud Wakea