EGYPT: Military Court Sentences Civilian Workers

  • by Cam McGrath (cairo)
  • Tuesday, August 31, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

'This was an unfair trial from the start,' says Adel Zakaria, a spokesman for the Centre for Trade Union and Workers' Services (CTUWS). 'Civilian workers should not be prosecuted according to military law, which includes provisions that violate the legal and constitutional guarantees to which civilian defendants are entitled.'

The eight workers at Helwan Engineering Industries Company were accused of deliberately stopping production, vandalising company property, and assaulting a public official during a sit-in on Aug. 3. The protest erupted after a nitrogen cylinder exploded, killing one of their colleagues and injuring six others at the military-owned facility just south of Cairo.

'The workers were protesting company negligence that caused the death of one worker,' says Hafez Abu Seada, a defence lawyer for the workers. 'This was a civil matter involving civilian workers at a military factory, and should have been taken up in a civil court.'

Military courts normally handle cases related to national security or terrorism. Sentences are usually swift and harsh, and cannot be appealed.

Rights advocates charge that military trials unfairly raise the stakes while severely undermining the capacity of the defence team. During the trial, which began on Aug. 22, defence attorneys were unable to obtain a copy of the prosecution records and were only allowed to read excerpts of the case files during the closed-door sessions.

'The court rejected the requests of defence lawyers to copy case documents on the grounds that they may contain military secrets,' says Zakaria.

The court declared five of the defendants guilty of damaging factory equipment and handed down suspended prison sentences of between six months and one year, as well as fines of 1,000 Egyptian pounds (175 dollars) each. Three workers were declared innocent of all charges, while the court acquitted all eight workers of the charges of stopping work and assaulting the factory chairman, a public official.

It also dropped the charges of 'disclosing military secrets' against one of the eight defendants who had provided information to an opposition website about factory's safety record.

'The sentencing was less severe than expected,' Abu Seada told IPS. 'But at the end of the day, this trial was really intended to send a political message to workers in military factories that labour protests will not be tolerated.'

While the prosecution of civilian workers in Egyptian military courts is rare, many labour activists recall that in 1952 two workers from the northern town of Kafr el-Dawar were referred to a military court after participating in a strike to demand higher wages and incentives. The court declared the two men guilty of attempting to topple the regime, and ordered their execution.

Rights groups fear the government may be using the threat of military trials to intimidate workers and eliminate the growing labour movement.

'Thousands of protests, strikes and sit-ins have been staged by Egyptian workers in both the public and private sectors, protesting the rising cost of living and demanding better wages and working conditions. This latest referral before military courts of workers is therefore a disturbing step,' Amnesty International said in a statement.

In June, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) ranked Egypt among the worst 25 states that violate workers' rights. It said labour conditions were deteriorating, and accused the government of violating union freedoms and of deploying security forces to break up industrial actions.

The Egyptian Centre for Economic and Social Rights (ECESR) recorded 478 labour protests in 2009, including 184 sit-ins, 123 strikes and 106 rallies and demonstrations. Most of the protests were over inadequate wages and deplorable working conditions.

Workers at Helwan Company for Engineering Industries have said the company's management repeatedly ignored workers' complaints of poor safety conditions in the factory.

'Rather than prosecute and try these men for what appear to be legitimate demands for their safety at work, the Egyptian authorities should do their utmost to improve working conditions and safety in the workplace,' Amnesty International said.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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