CAIRO, Egypt — Many Egyptians reacted with anger Saturday to the life sentence delivered to ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak by a Cairo criminal court for complicity in the killing of unarmed protesters during the country’s uprising against him last year.
They were protesting that Mubarak’s conviction was not strong enough and that his security chiefs won acquittals.
The verdict marks the first conviction of an Arab leader since a wave of popular protests seeking to topple authoritarian regimes swept the Middle East in 2011, making it a landmark case.
But the ruling has fallen far short of many Egyptians’ hopes for justice, and threatens to ignite unrest here once again ahead of presidential run-off elections later this month.
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Euphoria over the 84-year-old Mubarak’s life sentence quickly turned to rage when the presiding judge, Ahmed Refaat, announced that four interior ministry aides and two security chiefs — including the former head of Egypt’s hated riot police — were acquitted of charges of giving orders that resulted in the deaths of 846 protesters during the 18-day revolt.
“I am wondering where the blood of the people has gone,” said Ahmed Hassan, 30-year-old sound technician who watched the hearing from a downtown Cairo café. “Who spilled the blood of the martyrs if all of them are innocent? This sentence, it is not enough.”
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Former interior minister, Habib Al Adly, was also sentenced to life in prison for “failing to prevent the killing” of demonstrators, the court said, but not for direct involvement in the deaths due to a lack of evidence.
Corruption charges brought against Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, were dropped because the statute of limitations expired, the judge said.
“The landmark conviction [of Mubarak] sends a powerful message to Egypt’s future leaders that they are not above the law,” New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement.
“However, the acquittal of four assistant ministers of interior on the grounds of insufficient evidence highlights the failure of the prosecution to fully investigate responsibility for the shooting of protesters in January 2011, giving a green light to future police abuse,” it said.
Protesters clashed with riot police outside the police academy where the hearing was held, in an upscale suburb of Cairo. Demonstrators also poured into the city’s iconic Tahrir Square late Saturday afternoon, staging marches to the nearby public prosecutor’s office to object to the ruling.
Similar protests had also kicked-off in Alexandria and Suez, local media said. And the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest mobilizing political force but which is often hesitant to call for open-ended protests, announced they would participate in demonstrations against the verdict nationwide.
“We demand justice. There was blood in the streets,” said 19-year-old Hala Suleiman Rizk, a female computer science student who was protesting in Tahrir Square. “Like the people who died in the revolution, they [the defendants] must die, too.”
While the political fallout of the ruling remained unclear Saturday, legal experts said the case raised serious questions about the independence of Egypt’s judiciary.
And because of the weak wording of the verdict, which says they are guilty of failing to halt the killing, the conviction could easily be overturned on appeal, lawyers said.
“It was a verdict to protect and defend the regime of Mubarak. And to defeat the revolution in Egypt,” said Amir Salem, a lawyer representing the families of the victims of the uprising. “It means that we still live under the regime of Mubarak, and all the powers in this country, they keep fighting to defend Mubarak.”
Indeed, the ruling follows a series of similar cases over the past year in which policemen on trial for killing protestors were acquitted of all charges.
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When Egyptians took to the streets in an unprecedented revolt against Mubarak’s 30-year-rule last year, the infrastructure of the brutal police state he nurtured was a primary target.
On Jan. 28, 2011, Egyptians burned hundreds of police stations, often the site of vicious, state-sanctioned torture, according to human rights activists.
But according to HRW, there are 26 other trials in which at least 150 policemen are charged with killing protesters. The majority of those have so far resulted in acquittals, HRW said.
In the Mubarak trial, Judge Refaat said the prosecution did not provide enough evidence to conclusively link the ministry of interior and its security chiefs with the dead protesters, adding that they could not trace the ammunition from the protestors’ bodies to police forces.
“How come all of the policemen, from Alexandria [in the north] to Aswan [in the south], are innocent?” said Salem. “Who killed the Egyptians? Was it aliens that came down with machine guns and live bullets?”
But while Cairo seethed with anger Saturday evening — and more political forces joined the calls to take to the streets in protest — not everybody was thirsty for revenge.
“The whole system is flawed, it’s not just Mubarak,” said 30-year-old Sameh Anwar, a waiter at a downtown café. “I was hoping Mubarak would be declared innocent. But most people don’t like him, so it is not really my right to protest.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo, Egypt