CAIRO (AP) — Several hundred Egyptians including a presidential candidate began a 24-hour hunger strike on Sunday to protest the continued detention of around 300 people rounded up in a mass arrest who face possible military prosecution.
The protest comes on the eve of presidential elections that are supposed to lead to Egypt's ruling military council stepping down — but also amid rising fears that the generals will continue their use of military tribunals to try civilians and use them to target opponents. It is not yet clear how much power the military will retain once a civilian president is elected.
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.
In the latest demonstration, activists, journalists and others gathered at the Journalists Union in Cairo to show support for those 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.
On Saturday, 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.
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. The race begins May 23-24.
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 an undetermined number of the nearly 300 people still in detention have joined the strike. She said some of them have refused food since Sunday.
"We decided to join them 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 refer civilians to trial at its discretion.