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Egypt: Sinai journalist facing military trial on Sunday

‘The authorities’ decision to try a journalist and a civilian in a military court is a serious blow to press freedom and human rights in Egypt’ - Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui

An Egyptian journalist facing an unfair military trial over his coverage of events in Egypt’s restive Sinai region must be immediately and unconditionally released, said Amnesty International ahead of a hearing in his case this Sunday.

Amnesty believes that 38-year-old Ahmed Abu Deraa, an award-winning correspondent from Al-Masry al-Youm, an Egyptian daily newspaper, is being prosecuted for challenging the army’s version of its operations in the North Sinai region.

Abu Deraa is accused of publishing false information and trespassing on a military zone without a permit. He was arrested on 4 September at a coastal border guard base after he inquired about an injured relative arrested following a military operation in the village of Muqat’a. The journalist faces charges of spreading false information which endangers “national security” and “weakens fiscal confidence in the country” and its “prestige”. He also faces a separate charge for entering a prohibited military zone without a permit. If convicted, he could face five years in prison.

During a press conference on 15 September, a military spokesperson maintained that Abu Deraa had made false claims that the armed forces had destroyed mosques, evicted residents and targeted women and Children's rights during military operations. A day before his arrest, Abu Deraa posted a message on Facebook reporting that the Egyptian army had bombed the villages of Muqat’a and Touma in Sheikh Zaid in North Sinai. Six homes and a mosque were damaged in the attack, he said. He also reported that the military arrested an injured resident. In an earlier post, he explicitly questioned the army’s and media’s version of events in North Sinai.

Abu Deraa is one of the few independent voices reporting from North Sinai, an area which has been plagued by security threats and instability. The armed forces have conducted several military operations since July against what the authorities describe as militant groups active in the region. Mohamed Sabry, another independent, Sinai-based journalist, is also facing military trial after his arrest on 4 January. He is charged with trespassing and filming in a prohibited place without authorisation.

Under Egypt’s Code of Military Justice, military courts deal with crimes committed in military bases or other locations occupied by soldiers. Earlier this week, Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Nabil Fahmy assured his US counterpart, John Kerry, that civilians will not face military trials in Egypt.

Amnesty International Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui said:

“The authorities’ decision to try a journalist and a civilian in a military court is a serious blow to press freedom and human rights in Egypt.

“Egyptian military trials are notoriously unfair and in any event, trying civilians in military courts flouts international standards.

“The charges against Ahmed Abu Deraa should be dropped, and he should be immediately released.”

Military trials:
Since 3 July there has been a worrying increase in military trials of civilians, particularly in Suez. A number of alleged supporters of the deposed president Mohamed Morsi were convicted after unfair trials by military courts in Suez. For instance, on 3 September, the Suez Military Court convicted 47 civilians to prison terms ranging from five years to life for committing violent acts, while over a dozen other civilians were acquitted. Their lawyers complained about facing obstacles in getting access to their clients.

Other recent military trials are not linked to the political turmoil. For example, on 24 July  two men - Ramadan Ahmed Ismail Mahfouz, 32, originally from Fayoum, and Mohamed Amin Mohamed, originally from Aswan - were sentenced to one-year imprisonment terms for insulting and punching a soldier by the Suez Military Court. The charges are based on an altercation with the soldier at a checkpoint.

More than 12,000 civilians were tried unfairly by military courts during the 17-month rule of the army from February 2011 to June 2012.

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