Five Egyptian students have been transferred to a military court on charges of rioting at a university, a judicial source and state media 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 told the Reuters news agency.

The five were arrested during protests 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, local newspaper Al-Ahram's Arabic news website reported.

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 Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

But rights campaigners believe the measure, approved by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on October 27, will makes it easier to jail protesters and student activists.

Egypt has jailed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters and targeted other activists since Morsi was toppled and imprisoned.

In September, Egypt introduced sweeping new rules aimed at curtailing a new round of violent protest at al-Azhar this academic year.

Mahmoud Salman, a lawyer and member of the group No To Military Trials for Civilians, criticised the court's decision to transfer the five accused students on charges relating to acts that took place before the new law was passed, saying it should not be applied retrospectively.

Source: Agencies