No justice from military courts in British activist’s rape case
The past year in Egypt has highlighted the difficulties civilians face in the military justice system. Around 15,000 civilians were tried in military courts, most of them reporting that they did not receive full legal rights in their speedy trials. These trials prompted a widespread campaign against trying civilians in military courts and the practice has, for the most part, stopped.
But it’s not just civilian defendants who have had their quest for justice stymied in military courts. Any case involving a member of the military must be heard by a military tribunal, even if it is a civilian accusing a member of the military of a crime.
Tanya, a British citizen, knows the frustrations of dealing with Egypt’s military justice system all too well. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.)
She says she was raped by a military officer at the barracks of a military checkpoint between Ismailia and Arish in May 2011.
The accused, an Egyptian military officer, was sentenced in February to a three-year jail term for indecent assault on the British peace activist. This was the second conviction after the first one — which meted out the exact same sentence — was overturned.
“He wasn’t even charged with rape,” she said. “They didn’t do a forensic examination on me despite my asking many, many times.” The officer was charged with the lesser crime of indecent assault and the inflexibility in amending the charge casts light on the workings of Egypt’s military courts.
“An ongoing refusal to provide information about the criminal process in a case such as this can have a very negative impact on the victim and hinder their recovery,” said Sarah Fulton, an international legal officer at Redress, a London-based human rights organization focused on reparations for victims of torture.
“Because this was a military prosecution, it was shrouded in secrecy and was very difficult for Tanya even to get information about the outcome of the trial, let alone to participate in it,” she added.
The officer was sentenced to a three-year sentence in June. However, the sentence was not ratified by head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who must sign off on all military court verdicts. A retrial was ordered.
During the first session, Tanya’s lawyers in Egypt were denied access to the court. In the retrial, lawyers from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights representing Tanya were allowed not only to sit in on the court sessions but also address the court.
“It’s a precedent,” said Tarek Abdel Aal, the group’s lawyer who handled the case. In court, Abdel Aal requested a sterner sentence and a stronger charge because “for me, this is a rape case, yet the officer was charged with indecent assault. He was an officer and she was under his protection.”
Tanya was en route to the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to protest against the blockade of the Palestinian territory. She was stopped at a checkpoint along the way and ordered to stay until morning. She was taken inside a building where the checkpoint soldiers camped and was assaulted by the officer in the enclosed room on the second floor.
It wasn’t until seven months after the first trial took place that Tanya and her lawyers even got wind of process or that the officer had been put on trial at all. Despite Abdel Aal’s plea to the court for a stiffer charge, it remained indecent assault, as a result of errors in the case file, according to Tanya.
“It’s quite frustrating that we’ve now got the case file translated and I can see there are mistakes relating to my evidence and there’s nothing I can do about it,” she said.
The fact that Abdel Aal was allowed to address the court at all was a breakthrough in Egypt’s military courts, but human rights advocates say it is still a long way from justice.
“This is one of the reasons why international human rights law is clear that cases involving serious crimes by military officers against civilians should be tried in the normal civilian court system, rather than the military justice system,” Fulton said.
In March, a military court acquitted the doctor accused of carrying out “virginity tests” on female protesters a year before. That decision, which was widely condemned by local and international human rights organizations, brought attention to the deficiencies of military justice.
Tanya has also submitted a complaint against the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), which has led them to revise their guidelines on assisting victims of torture after admitting shortcomings in the response to this case.
“When she reported the crime to the consulate, she was essentially left on her own to report it to the police and then the military. This left her in a very difficult and potentially dangerous situation,” Fulton said.
There is still no explanation for why a retrial was ordered, and yet the officer received the same exact sentence in both cases. According to Abdel Aal, it is the legal right of the head of the SCAF to order such a thing by not ratifying the initial verdict.
And so Tanya continues her recourse for justice in both Britain and Egypt, but one thing about what she went through seems unfathomable to her. In the statements of the witnesses — the other soldiers who were outside the room — they testified that they heard her screaming, saw the bruises and blood on her face and that she was shaking and in a state of severe collapse when walking out.
“It seems surprising to me that no one did anything to help me,” Tanya said. “None of them did anything.”
Originally published in Egypt Independent