x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Mubarak trial: Poetic talk that failed to deliver the penalty

Letter from Cairo The judge’s powerful and poetic rhetoric led court onlookers to think the gallows awaited the defendants. But they were angered when he acquitted six top officers over the killing of protesters, and some called for a purge of the judiciary.

Egyptian riot police stand guard last month near pictures of protesters killed during the 2011 uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak.
Egyptian riot police stand guard last month near pictures of protesters killed during the 2011 uprising that ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

Judge Ahmed Refaat's introductory remarks were so damning of Hosni Mubarak's regime, some in the courtroom thought that each of the 10 men in the defendants' cage was headed to the gallows - the ousted leader, his two sons, the ex-security chief, Habib El Adly, and six top police commanders.

They thought wrong.

Mr Refaat's 30-minute speech was filled with flowery Arabic, metaphors of darkness, bright days and winter nights. Fittingly, the courtroom fell silent as the judge delivered it, save for whispered words of approval.

"Allahu Akbar," or "God is Greatest, and "May God bless you" were among the most common comments.

But when Mr Refaat began to read out the verdicts, the reaction was starkly different from six lawyers who sat next to each other and hoisted small posters that read "Execution is God's verdict" and "Execution is the people's verdict".

Initially, the lawyers, like many others in the lecture hall used as a court, welcomed Mr Refaat's unequivocal condemnation of Mubarak's 29-year rule and his praise of the uprising that forced him to step down as president last year.

How could they not when the silver-haired Refaat seized the opportunity to sing his swan song before his retirement at the end of the month?

He said: "The people released a collective sigh of relief after a nightmare that did not, as is customary, last for a night but for almost 30 black, black, black years - darkness that resembled a winter night. They did not seek a luxurious life or to sit atop the world, but asked their politicians, rulers who sat on the throne of opulence, wealth and power to give them bread and clear water to satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst and to be in a home that shelters their families and the sons of the nation far from the rotten slums.

"They were chanting 'peaceful, peaceful' with their mouths while their stomachs were empty and their strength was failing ... They screamed ... 'rescue us and pull us from the torture of poverty and humiliation'."

Then on to the verdicts. Mubarak: life sentence. El Adly: life sentence, Alaa and Gamal Mubarak: acquitted. Six police commanders: acquitted.

The lawyers began to whisper a little louder. "May God exact revenge on you, Refaat," said one. "May God wreck your home, Refaat," another said.

The judge then went on to explain his verdicts. The law's statute of limitations had expired, which meant that Mubarak and his sons had to be acquitted of corruption charges. The lack of evidence meant that the six officers who were charged with complicity in the killing of protesters could not be convicted.

Mubarak and El Adly were sentenced to life in prison because they did not prevent the killings.

"The people want to purge the judiciary," lawyers for the victims' families shouted.

"To hell with Refaat," others said.

Mr Refaat left the bench unperturbed by the insults and screams.

So for many Egyptians the country's "trial of the century" has failed to bring justice.

In many ways, the verdict mirrored a multitude of court cases brought against policemen charged with killing protesters but which ended with their acquittal or in light sentences.

Mubarak's sons will remain in custody because they are awaiting trial on separate charges of insider trading

Even the life sentences imposed on Mubarak and El Adly, according to legal experts, could be overturned on appeal, thanks to Mr Refaat's assertion that the prosecution's case lacked evidence and the little it had offered had failed to satisfy the court.

Perhaps attesting to claims that Mubarak's legacy remains intact, most of the several hundred who attended the court session, held at a lecture hall in a police academy that once bore Mubarak's name, represented all branches of the police state the former leader allowed to flourish.

There were young police conscripts in plain clothes, uniformed policemen ranging from lieutenants in their early 20s to greying generals, and mysterious looking men in business suits with two-way radios treated with reverence by their uniformed colleagues.

Outside the academy, thousands of black-clad policemen were deployed, backed by armoured vehicles and dogs. More stringent security measures were in place, with careful searches carried out outside the complex. No one was allowed to take plastic water bottles into the courtroom, a measure that a police officer said was meant to stop anyone from tossing them at the bench.

Predictably, tens of thousands took to the streets in Cairo and elsewhere on Saturday initially to protest against the verdict but they ended up venting their anger and frustration over 15 months of what many see as the gross mismanagement by the ruling generals of the transitional period.