Ousted President Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the killing of protesters during last year’s uprising, a verdict that triggered unrest two weeks before Egypt’s divisive presidential runoff.
Also sentenced yesterday to life for complicity in the deaths was Mubarak’s long-time security chief, Habib El-Adli. Both men plan to appeal. The deposed president and his two sons were acquitted of corruption charges, while six senior police officials who had been charged were also cleared of wrongdoing in a case billed by state media as the “trial of the century.”
Mubarak’s critics say the officers’ acquittal may pave the way for a reversal on appeal of the verdict against the former ruler, 84. The presidential election, slated to begin June 16, pits the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Mursi against Ahmed Shafik, who briefly served as Mubarak’s last premier. Shafik has been decried as a “feloul,” or remnant of the old regime seeking to perpetuate his former boss’s legacy.
“This verdict is political. The blood of the martyrs has gone in vain,” Hesham Naguib Mahfouz, a lawyer representing some of the victims’ families, told reporters. “I am saddened I even took part in the revolution. This country has gone to waste.”
Mubarak is the only Arab leader to appear in court, after the so-called Arab Spring swept the region. For the families of the roughly 850 people killed in the January 2011 uprising, and others who participated in the revolution, the case was a test of the new Egypt -- a chance for justice, they argued, that had barely been practiced under the deposed president. Months of hearings in a case they wanted swiftly concluded, however, had eroded their confidence that justice could be had.
Within hours of the verdicts, thousands of protesters poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which had served as the epicentre for the uprising. Earlier, both pro-Mubarak demonstrators and families of the victims clashed with security forces outside the police academy that once bore Mubarak’s name and where the trial was held.
Mubarak suffered a “health crisis” while en route to prison, state media reported, without being more specific.
“This verdict is a continuation of the fight against the revolution,” Ahmed Maher, one of the founders of the April 6 youth group movement that participated in the uprising. “Tensions are running high and the people are preparing for a new revolutionary wave against the old regime and its symbols who are still there, like Shafik.”
“Mubarak may be acquitted on appeal,” Maher said, decrying the judge’s acquittal of the senior police officers on lack of evidence. “What does it mean that there’s no evidence for the killings? How did the protesters die then? Did they just drop dead on their own?”
Presiding Judge Ahmed Refaat began the proceedings by speaking of the new era that emerged in Egypt after Mubarak was toppled from power. Under Mubarak, Egypt fell behind “the most backward countries in the Third World,” the judge said. “God wiped out the night, and allowed daylight to prevail.”
Last year’s uprising ended “30 years of bleak, bleak darkness,” Refaat said. “God’s will was to inspire the courageous people of Egypt, accompanied by angels. They were not demanding the luxuries of life, but demanding that their politicians and rulers, who enjoyed the riches and power, to give them the bare minimum” of food, water, housing and jobs.
Before he read out the verdicts, the lawyers representing the victims’ families made clear what they expected on white sheets of paper that read: “The people’s ruling is execution” and “God’s ruling is execution.”
Chaos broke out in court, with a fist-fight erupting after the verdicts were read. Lawyers for the families chanted “null and void” and “the people want the cleansing of the judiciary.”
The timing of the ruling, between the first round of the elections held on May 23 and 24 and the runoff June 16 and 17, helped stoke the skepticism and frustration with which the ruling was met, Hani Sabra, a Mideast analyst with the Eurasia Group in New York, said by phone.
“It’s very difficult, if you look at the timing of the events, to imagine that this is largely a legal proceeding that’s divorced from political reality,” he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood, in a statement, said the officers’ acquittal “sends a message to them and to others to continue their aggression on citizens.”
“This verdict means that only the head of the regime and of the interior ministry have fallen. The rest of the regime remains,” said the Brotherhood, whose political arm controls almost 50 percent of the seats in parliament’s lower house.
The aging president, who has been held in hospital since the trial began in August, was taken by helicopter to Cairo’s notorious Tora prison, to be housed in a recently upgraded hospital unit. His two sons, along with El-Adli and the other defendants, had been held at the prison since the start of the proceedings.
Mubarak’s sons, while acquitted yesterday of the charges they faced in their father’s trial, remain imprisoned, awaiting trial on charges filed in May of stock-market manipulation.
Mubarak had attended the trial while lying on a gurney inside the defendants’ cage, shielded from view by his sons.
Supporters of the ousted leader repeatedly clashed with families of those killed in the uprising outside the police academy. The fights reflected the rifts in the country as Egypt’s military rulers and other officials pushed ahead with the nation’s rocky transition to democracy.
Essam Battawy, El-Adli’s attorney, criticized the ruling.
“This is a political verdict to appease public opinion,” Battawy said in a phone interview. “We will use the causes given for acquitting the senior police officers as grounds for filing an appeal.”
Those acquittals were “proof of El-Adli’s innocence,” he said.
Meanwhile, prosecutors said they would appeal the sentences.
“It’s so unfair for the six others, the heads of evil, to be acquitted,” Azeeza Mohamed, who said her son was killed during the revolt, said by phone. “It is God who will avenge our children in the afterlife, and I pray that he takes revenge for them in this world.”
Ahead of the verdict, authorities set up a sweeping security plan that included deploying 5,000 security officers to prevent violence. Outside the fortified facility, scores of black-clad riot police stood ready, backed by armored personnel vehicles.
Pro-Mubarak demonstrators pelted passing cars with rocks. Families of the victims later began throwing rocks while security forces kept the two sides apart.
The verdict, and the ensuing protests, further clouded the country’s political and security landscape ahead of the pivotal presidential vote.
The political tensions over the past week helped push the benchmark EGX 30 stock index down 5.7 percent, and added to concerns about an economy that has struggled to recover since Mubarak’s ouster in February last year. Egypt has spent about 60 percent of its currency reserves in the period, as the central bank sought to shore up the Egyptian pound. Political bickering has delayed a $3.2 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
Those concerns have been amplified ahead of the upcoming vote, and could be magnified even more after the verdict that has been resoundingly criticized by the revolutionary youth and others.
Shafik’s run is seen by Islamists and the youth revolutionary groups who played a key role in the protests as an attempt to revive the old regime. Mursi’s candidacy, however, has also unsettled secularists and the country’s Christian minority, who worry the Brotherhood will implement Islamic law.
Shafik said he respects the verdict and, in a statement by his campaign, stressed that the ruling showed that “no one in Egypt was above accountability.”
The trial served as a lesson to any presidential successor, he said in the statement.
The trial produced scenes unthinkable before last year’s uprising. After years of fearing to directly criticize Mubarak or his family, Egyptians watched as he lay in the cage, his eyes often masked by sunglasses while his sons stood stoically in front of him, at times leaning down to kiss his forehead.
Mubarak was also charged with abusing his office to acquire property for himself and his sons, and with selling natural gas to Israel at below-market prices.
Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, a member of the Israeli parliament and former defense minister who was close to Mubarak, said it was a “very sad day.”
“This man was the leading force for stability in the Middle East,” Ben-Eliezer told Israel Radio yesterday. “He saw Israel as a crucial element in safeguarding the Egyptian economy.”