CAIRO (Reuters) - Five Egyptian students were transferred to a military court on Sunday on charges of rioting at a university, a judicial source said, weeks after a law was passed allowing military trials of civilians for damaging state property.
A Cairo criminal court transferred the students after ruling that the charges of rioting, belonging to a “terrorist” group and arson, fell outside its remit, the source said.
The five were arrested in January and accused of setting fire to part of the engineering faculty at Al Azhar, one of the oldest Islamic universities in the world, and preventing staff from doing their jobs.
Egypt expanded the jurisdiction of military courts late last month to try civilians accused of attacking state facilities or blocking roads, following some of the worst assaults on security forces since last year’s ousting of President Mohammed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood.[ID:nL5N0SM1P3]
The measure, approved by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is seen by his critics as another clampdown on dissent by a government that has jailed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members and targeted other activists.
As the noose tightened around the Brotherhood, Al Azhar, one of the most venerable centers of Islamic learning in the world, emerged as a flashpoint in its struggle against the new order. In September, Egypt introduced sweeping new rules aimed at curtailing a new round of violent protest at Al Azhar this academic year.[ID:nL6N0RJ49L]
The military trial of civilians is a controversial issue in Egypt, where the armed forces play an influential role in both the political and economic spheres. Sisi was previously chief of the army, which toppled Mursi after mass protests.
Mahmoud Salman, a lawyer and member of the group No To Military Trials for Civilians, criticized the court’s decision to transfer the accused on charges relating to acts that took place before the new law was passed, saying it should not be applied retrospectively.
Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Mark Trevelyan