CAIRO // The rising political temperature in Egypt, with protesters reviving their tent cities, threatens to undermine the fairness of trials of Mubarak regime members, according to a judge with Egypt's highest appeals court.
Adel Maged, a judge and vice-president of the Court of Cassation, said the judicial system is in a "dilemma" when it comes to trying former ministers, businessmen and others in the courts after the revolution.
"It is always difficult to make a balance of the concept of a fair trial and the demand of the victims for speedy justice," he said. "Public pressure for speedy trials might lead to negative consequences and affect the fairness of these trials."
Delays in trying former regime officials and justice for police accused of killing protesters have sparked protests and riots in cities across the country in recent weeks.
Five months after 18 days of mass demonstrations drove President Hosni Mubarak from power on February 11, protesters have returned to Tahrir Square in Cairo, the centre of the uprising, to express their frustration that "the revolution" has stalled. They want the police force to be purged of Mubarak loyalists and officers involved in the killing of nearly 900 protesters during the uprising.
Tent cities have also sprung up in other major cities, including Alexandria and Suez, as well as outlying provinces. Two days of rioting in Suez, a city that saw some of the most dramatic confrontations between police and protesters, was prompted by anger over a court order on July 4 to release seven police officers charged with killing demonstrators.
Yesterday, in what appeared to be a direct response to the demonstrations, Egypt fired nearly 600 top police officers as part of a process of cleansing the discredited and widely unpopular police force, state television reported.
Rallies have also been held over a court decision on July 5 to acquit three former government ministers over corruption allegations.
Many lawyers said the ruling was legally sound but cast doubt on the objectivity of the prosecutor-general, who was appointed under Mubarak's regime, saying he was rushing flimsy cases to court without a thorough investigation.
The judiciary is also facing pressure from above. The minister of justice, Mohammed Abdel-Aziz El Gendi, began investigations into three judges in early June after they made statements criticising the use of military trials for some citizens. While the judiciary is largely independent, the Ministry of Justice has the power to investigate judges through its Judicial Inspection Department.
Judge Maged said: "Judges believe that this is one of the main reasons for some of the crises that happened lately in the judiciary," adding that the judiciary has its own system for dealing with violations of the rules through the Supreme Judicial Council. "This was seen as infringing on the independence of the judiciary."
Under Mr Mubarak's 30-year rule, the judiciary was seen as a rare bulwark against the totalitarian rule of the presidency. Independent judges challenged parliamentary votes, attempts to weaken the courts and changes to the constitution.
"There were many attempts to infiltrate the judiciary," Judge Maged said. "We fought for the principle of separation of powers."
Judge Hossam Ghariani, the newly appointed head of the Court of Cassation, was expected to push for the changes to the system to allow the judiciary branch to be completely independent of the other arms of the government, Judge Maged said.
The Supreme Judicial Council, of which Judge Ghariani is also the head, announced on Tuesday that trials of allegedly corrupt officials and police officers charged with killing protesters would be broadcast on screens outside the courthouse to help appease demands from political groups for more transparent justice.
Chibli Mallat, a one-time presidential candidate in Lebanon and visiting professor at Harvard University School of Law specialising in constitutional issues, said: "Every single issue in Egypt is complicated by the lack of clarity of transitional justice. Any trial that takes place must conform with well-established Egyptian and universal standards. We have to trust the inventiveness of Egyptians on these trials."
He said the military should immediately scrap military trials for civilians or risk appearing as a remnant of the Mubarak regime, which relied on special courts and an emergency law to fast-track arrests of dissidents without due process.