Egyptian detainees start hunger strike

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More than 100 Egyptians held since a mass arrest over two weeks ago began an open-ended hunger strike Sunday to protest their continued detention and the possibility they will face military prosecution, activists said.

Hundreds of activists outside prison including a presidential candidate meanwhile held a symbolic 24-hour strike in support of the group and against the military trials of civilians.

The protest comes on the eve of presidential elections that are supposed to lead to Egypt's ruling military council stepping down in favor of a civilian government — but also amid rising fears that the generals will continue to transfer civilians to military tribunals after the transition. The military is suspected of trying to retain considerable powers past the handover.

The military says that the courts are essential to keeping order in the turbulent aftermath of the 2011 toppling of Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. Its critics say the tribunals are used to suppress dissent, and human rights groups say they are a violation of international law.

On Sunday, activists, journalists and others gathered at the Journalists Union in Cairo to show support for more than 300 detained in a sweeping roundup by the military following a violent protest earlier this month outside the Ministry of Defense in which one soldier was killed. The mass arrest and referral to military prosecution was the largest since Mubarak's overthrow.

The day before, the New York-based Human Rights Watch said the detainees were beaten and tortured. "Military officers have no sense of limits on what they can do," the group said.

An estimated 11,000 civilians have been sent before military tribunals since Mubarak's fall. The issue has become a major point of conflict between the ruling generals who took over from Mubarak and the youth revolutionary groups who led the uprising against him.

So far, 141 detainees have joined the hunger strike that started Sunday, said Salma Abdel-Gelil, an activist organizing the solidarity protest.

She said another detainee had refused food since a day after his May 4 arrest, and that activists were worried about his health.

"The detainees will continue their hunger strike until their demands are met," said Abdel-Gelil. They want to be released and not be referred to military trials.

She said more of them will join the hunger strike after the first round of presidential elections. The race begins May 23-24 and Sunday is the last day of campaigning. A runoff vote is set for June 16-17 if no candidate wins outright in the first round.

Khaled Ali, 40, a presidential candidate who represents to many the face of the youth movement, said he is joining the 24-hour strike. Ali is the youngest of 13 candidates making a bid for Egypt's top job.

Other well-known protesters were lawmaker Ziad el-Oleimi, one of the leading figures in the 2011 uprising, and Reem Magued, a presenter for a popular private-sector television station.

Nazly Hussein, a member of an activist group called No to Military trials, said there is growing fear the military trials are used to crackdown on critics of the military.

"We decided to join them (detainees) in the strike to let them know they are not alone, and that we will not forget them because of the presidential elections," she said.

Military authorities have released less than a hundred of those detained, including a handful of journalists and a dozen women pending investigation. They can still face trial on charges including attacking troops and disrupting public order.

Many activists had hoped that Egypt's newly elected parliament would curtail the use of military trials. However, while legislation passed earlier this month limited the powers of the next president to refer civilians to trial, it allowed the military to continue the practice at its discretion.