Islamist MPs In the Dock

In another escalation of the government’s ongoing campaign against the Islamist opposition, two MPs from the Muslim Brotherhood were stripped of parliamentary immunity this month after being briefly detained by police.

Forty of the group’s leading members remain set to stand before a military tribunal despite a judicial ruling against trying civilians in military courts.

“By lifting the MPs’ immunity, the regime confirmed its intention to escalate the situation with the Muslim Brotherhood,” Gamal Zahran, spokesman for the independent bloc in parliament told IPS. “It was a message to opposition of all stripes that the regime’s authoritarianism knows no limit.”

On Apr. 29, police arrested the two parliamentarians, Ragab Abuzaid and Sabri Aamer in the northern city of Menoufiya along with 12 other members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The men were charged with participating in a “secret planning meeting” and of possessing “organisational documents”.

Although Abuzaid and Aamer were released a day later, the detention of sitting MPs — who are supposed to enjoy parliamentary immunity from arrest — was highly unusual. The other 12 members of the group remain in detention.

Banned since 1954, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood officially renounced violence in the 1970s, and has confined its tactics to the political arena ever since. But while the group remains formally proscribed, its members can run as nominal independents in parliamentary elections.

The government raised the stakes May 9 when a parliamentary majority voted to strip the two representatives of parliamentary immunity to answer charges of “association with a banned group.” While the Muslim Brotherhood holds roughly one-fifth of the seats in the national assembly, the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) of President Hosni Mubarak controls most of the rest.

The move was condemned by Brotherhood and independent representatives alike. “Stripping the two MPs of their immunity was little more than a settling of scores with the Brotherhood in general and its parliamentary bloc in particular,” Saad al-Husseini, secretary-general of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc in the assembly told IPS.

According to Zahran, the move showed up a parliamentary “double standard” that has consistently worked to the advantage of the ruling party.

“There have been several requests from the attorney-general to lift the parliamentary immunity of NDP representatives accused of corruption,” he said. “But these have never come to anything.”

Atef al-Banna, professor of constitutional law at Cairo University, pointed out that the Egyptian Constitution guarantees citizens the right to congregate privately, provided they are unarmed.

“The two MPs, along with the 12 others, didn’t commit a crime,” al-Banna told IPS. “I was surprised, therefore, about the decision to strip their immunity, as they were simply congregating with their constituents rather than doing anything illegal.”

The Brotherhood suffered another blow this month when judicial authorities upheld a presidential order issued in February referring 40 of the group’s leading members to stand trial before a military court. The trial, in which the men face charges of money laundering and “financing the activities of a banned group”, began late last month.

On May 8, a Cairo administrative court ruled that the use of military tribunals on civilians contravened both the Egyptian constitution as well as international law. The administrative court judge further demanded immediate release of the 40 defendants.

Six days later the Supreme Administrative Court — the highest administrative authority in the country — overruled the earlier verdict. The latter decision allows for resumption of the military trial Jun. 3.

“The fact that the first court ruling calling for the release of these men wasn’t implemented only illustrates the regime’s dictatorial style and lack of respect for the constitution and law,” said the Brotherhood’s al-Husseini.

According to al-Banna, the constitution clearly states that military courts should only be employed in cases involving military personnel or which have a military dimension.

“A lawsuit was filed in 1995 challenging the constitutionality of referring civilians to military courts, although no ruling has ever been issued on the matter,” he explained. “But the practice is prohibited according to most legal systems throughout the world.”

The amendment earlier this year of Article 179 of the constitution gave the President broad powers of arrest. These included the authority to refer suspected “terrorists” to stand trial before military tribunals.

Al-Banna, however, pointed out that the defendants had been referred to the tribunal a month before the amendments were approved in a March referendum.

“Article 179 doesn’t apply here because the defendants were referred to the military court before the article was amended,” he said. “What’s more, the article refers to crimes that will be covered by proposed anti-terrorism legislation, which might in the future be applied to everyone.”

The latest crackdown against the Islamist group began mid-December, when a rally held by Brotherhood-affiliated students was depicted by official media as the advent of an “Islamic militia”. Since then, more than 300 of the group’s members have been arrested on various charges.

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