CAIRO – Egypt's Islamist-dominated parliament on Sunday approved a ban on the country's next president from sending civilians for trial by military tribunals, but preserving that power for the military itself.
The measure would curb the powers enjoyed by the deposed President Hosni Mubarak, who used the military tribunals to refer opponents, especially Islamists.
The law retains the current wide-ranging powers for the military to send civilians to military tribunals. Activists have been campaigning against that practice by the ruling generals who took over from Mubarak in February last year.
More than 10,000 civilians have been referred to such tribunals since then, some for criticizing the military.
On Saturday alone, more than 300 civilians were sent for military prosecution following violent demonstrations near the Defense Ministry in Cairo. They face accusations of attacking troops and disrupting public order.
Late Sunday, the military renewed an overnight curfew in the area of the ministry for a third day.
Human Rights Watch researcher Heba Morayef said the new measure fails to protect civilians and civilian justice system from the military.
"It is an attempt to limit the next president's power, but does nothing about the relations between civilians and military," she said. "The newly elected civilian authority is not responding to one of the main demands on the streets to protect the rights of civilians."
Another lawyer, Ragia Omran, who has been campaigning for ending the military trials, said the measure was a "disappointment," because there were consultations with lawmakers to limit the military's jurisdiction.
"The (lawmakers) don't care about the public opinion. It is only good for them," she said.
The measure allows those tried under Mubarak to appeal the verdicts before a military tribunal. This includes some of the senior Muslim Brotherhood leaders.
Brotherhood lawyer Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud said the law intends to "curb the powers of the next president" to send civilians to military courts for a wide variety of offenses.
The military itself still has that authority, he said, "but now the door is no longer open for the next president" to do so.
Egyptian activists and political groups have grown critical of the military management of the transition period, and have sought to curb the powers enjoyed by the military since its 1952 military coup. Since then it was been the source of all of Egypt's leaders.
Later this month, Egyptians vote for the first time to elect a president without a military background. But many believe the military is still trying to preserve its economic interests and political clout by backing a presidential candidate or introducing legislation that protects its status.
Morayef questioned the Brotherhood's concession on military trials despite public pressure.
"The timing is interesting, when the Brotherhood is saying it is in the middle of a battle with the military, (but) in no way are they pushing back against military authority," she said.
The original law, in place since 1966, allows the military to try any crimes committed against military personnel, on military grounds or "against the security, safety or interests of the Armed Forces."
The tribunals also have jurisdiction over any site operated by the military. Egypt's military has extensive economic interests and employs civilians, making them liable to military jurisdiction.
Rights lawyer Ahmed Ragheb said the new measure also preserves the right of the military to try its retired personnel for financial and other crimes, a measure adopted after the uprising that toppled Mubarak.