CAIRO An Egyptian army court acquitted an army doctor on Sunday of forcing a virginity test on a pro-democracy protester, setting back hopes of reining in a military establishment that has cracked down on the movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
The case of Samira Ibrahim, who defied taboos in the conservative Muslim country to challenge the military over her treatment in detention, was seen as a test by activists of the army's pledge to investigate abuses and prosecute culprits.
Welcomed when it took control after Mubarak was ousted last year, the military council has drawn increasingly fierce flak for its handling of protests and the slow pace of reforms.
Instead of responding to the street during the political transition, activists say the army has been busy protecting its broad business interests and shielding soldiers from justice as it prepares to hand power to civilians by July 1.
"The army doctor Ahmed Adel was found not guilty in the case of virginity tests because of conflicting witness accounts," said a military judicial source, who asked not to be named.
A witness said Ibrahim broke down in tears after the ruling. She had no immediate comment when contacted by Reuters. Adel, dressed in civilian clothes, welcomed the court's verdict.
For activists, the ruling casts a cloud over prospects for convicting soldiers accused of abuses ranging from driving over demonstrators in army vehicles in the Maspero district of Cairo in October to beating protesters on the street.
In one notable case, a woman was filmed being dragged and kicked by soldiers during a protest, exposing her underwear.
"I am disappointed but not surprised ... This is a reflection of the fact that the military justice system is not an independent justice system and that the military will protect its own," said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch in Egypt.
She said Ibrahim's verdict "bodes ill" for the Maspero case which is also before the civilian courts.
No soldiers have been convicted in cases that have been publicized, although thousands of civilians have been hauled before military tribunals during the past year.
The army routinely dismisses charges its courts are biased.
Ibrahim, who was detained in March during a protest in Cairo's Tahrir Square, was sentenced by a military court to a one-year suspended prison term for insulting authorities, joining an illegal assembly and breaking a curfew.
'DOWN WITH MILITARY RULE'
Controversy over the virginity tests gathered pace after a general was quoted by CNN last year as saying tests were carried out to prove the women were not virgins when they were detained, so they could not say they were raped in detention.
An army official later denied the comments were made.
"I have been wronged and have been waiting for a just verdict such as this one," said the army doctor, Adel, speaking to reporters after the ruling.
Egypt's state news agency reported that the accounts given by three witnesses in the case conflicted with a fourth.
Adel's lawyer, Huwaida Mustafa, said the case had been misrepresented in the media and the issue had been personally damaging to her client. "We will take legal action to reclaim his social standing," the lawyer told reporters.
Outside the court, around 30 protesters gathered, shouting: "Down down military rule" and "We demanded dignity and change. Instead they stripped our girls in Tahrir."
The latest ruling comes at a sensitive time as the military council prepares to hand power to civilians, but analysts say it will continue to wield influence from behind the scenes and not submit to civilian rulers.
The army's focus in recent weeks appears to have shifted from dousing public anger on the street to dealing with a newly elected parliament as it prepares an exit strategy that will secure its interests and immunity, analysts and diplomats say.
The army denies having any political aims.
"My pessimistic conclusion is we are not going to see accountability for military abuses for the last year any time soon," said Morayef.
Adding she believed Ibrahim's case only reached court after street pressure, Morayef said the "acquittal perhaps means the military doesn't feel that pressure anymore."
A civilian court issued a ruling in December ordering the army to end the practice of virginity tests. After that, a military judicial official said cases of reported forced tests had been transferred to the Supreme Military Court.
At the time, Ibrahim had hailed the civilian court ruling. She told Reuters: "I wish I could win the case against the lieutenant who did the test ... They can say what they want ... I want him to be executed, he and anyone who gave him orders."
(Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Sophie Hares)