CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's military rulers have pledged to protect national security after a decades-old emergency law expires later on Thursday, but the fate of scores of people detained under the statute remains unclear.
The measures give the security forces sweeping powers of search and arrest and were a fixture of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule that ended last year in a street revolt.
An end to the state of emergency was a demand of those who led the popular uprising and the army generals who took power from Mubarak promised to do away with the law.
Instead they made wide use of it when dealing with street protests and sectarian clashes. The army issued a decree in January limiting the law to cover ill-defined cases of "thuggery".
Acknowledging the expiry of the law, the ruling military council said in a televised address that it would "continue to carry its national responsibility in protecting the country until the transfer of power is over".
The military is pledging to step aside by July 1, handing power to the winner of a presidential election run-off on June 16 and 17 to conclude a tumultuous transition to civilian rule.
But critics of the army, which has provided all of Egypt's leaders since military officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952, says it is likely to influence state policy for years to come, partly through its role in a proposed National Security Council that has been widely endorsed by the presidential candidates.
Thousands of civilians have been tried by military courts behind closed doors using the emergency powers since Mubarak was removed - more than during his entire rule. Rights campaigners said at least 188 people were still detained under the law.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based advocacy group, called for their release and the transfer of their cases to civilian courts.
The law was supposed to apply to terrorism cases and drug-related offences. But officials were not required to show evidence justifying detentions under the law and critics said it was a legal fig-leaf that allowed police to abuse the rights of people they arrested.
Rights groups say the emergency powers, in place since 1981, ingrained a culture of impunity in Egypt's law enforcement agencies that could take years to overturn.
Human Rights Watch said at least eight cases brought under the law were still with Egypt's state security court.
The latest conviction, it said, was on May 21 when a state security court sentenced 12 people to life in prison and acquitted eight others over two deaths in sectarian violence in April last year in Minya province south of Cairo.
The law allows for the trials to continue even after the state of emergency is lifted.
"The public prosecutor should order the transfer of all Emergency State Security Court cases to regular criminal courts for retrial," said Joe Stork, the group's deputy Middle East director. "It is unacceptable that there are still courts in Egypt that offer no right to an appeal."
Additional reporting by Ali Abdelatti and Tamim Elyan; Editing by Mark Heinrich