Cairo - With the trial of Hosni Mubarak set to resume Monday, attorneys representing the families of protesters killed during Egypt’s uprising are trying to cut out the deadwood in their midst.
Legal experts blasted the shoddy performance of plaintiff lawyers after the first two sessions of Egypt’s ‘Trial of the Century’ turned into a rowdy courtroom spectacle. Over 100 lawyers jostled for seats, shouted out of turn, and bickered among themselves during the nationally televised hearings.
Some fear their courtroom antics and weak execution could jeopardise an otherwise solid case against the toppled dictator, who is charged with authorising the killing of hundreds of unarmed protesters during the uprising that swept him from power in February.
"The quality of the (plaintiff) lawyers during the first two sessions was appalling," says Amir Marghany, managing partner of legal firm Marghany Advocates. "The way things are going I wouldn’t be surprised if Mubarak goes free and the victims’ families end up in jail."
Prominent lawyers and rights groups concerned with the direction the landmark case is taking have volunteered their services to assist the families of protesters killed in the 18-day uprising. The Defense for the Families of the Martyrs (DFM) has offered free counsel and a pool of veteran lawyers ready to take over cases from their poorly performing colleagues.
The new initiative is helping to remove the burden on the Front to Defend Egyptian Protesters (FDEP), whose rights advocates and volunteer lawyers are providing legal assistance to the families of civilians killed or injured in the January 25 Revolution. The Front was attempting to consolidate the plaintiffs’ legal team, but its concurrent campaign to defend thousands of civilians unfairly tried in military courts had spread its resources thin.
FDEP member Rawda Ahmed, a rights lawyer representing the families of 16 slain protesters, says legal experts can offer assistance, but they cannot force families to accept. Nor can they impel inexperienced lawyers to bow out.
"We’ve had some resistance from lawyers," she told IPS. "Perhaps the biggest problem was that many of the lawyers attending the trial were not representing anyone at all. They knew the trial was being carried live on state television so they were there just for show."
When the trial opened on Aug. 3, lawyers ostensibly representing the victims’ families jockeyed for front row seats and made long-winded motions seemingly aimed at maximising their camera time. One man posing as a lawyer grabbed a microphone and declared that Mubarak died in 2004 and the ailing man in the caged defendants’ box was an impostor.
Ahmed feels the judge’s decision to prevent further broadcasts of the trial should discourage grandstanding lawyers from attending upcoming sessions. But that still leaves dozens of attorneys, including some of very low calibre, who it is hoped can be persuaded to work with seasoned litigators as part of a unified legal team.
"We managed to get rid of the unaccredited lawyers, and are trying to unite those who remain behind five lead (plaintiff) lawyers," she says.
Marghany, a member of the DFM’s general secretariat, says one reason for the low standard of legal representation is that following Egypt’s uprising, which left about 850 people dead and over 6,400 injured, the families of the victims sought legal counsel but did not know where to turn.
"Most of the victims’ families were very poor, so after the revolution they went to their neighbourhood lawyer," he explains. "The lawyers they hired are not inexperienced in terms of being green. They just come from low-income districts, where every day is a struggle, so their behaviour in court is very aggressive."
Poor and desperate families were particularly vulnerable to coercion and duplicity. Several victims’ families were reported to have dropped their cases after receiving threats or payouts from the interior ministry, whose officers allegedly carried out Mubarak’s orders to use live ammunition on protesters. Others unwittingly hired the old regime’s lawyers.
Veteran rights lawyer Amir Salem says many of the attorneys he saw representing the victims’ families in court were notorious Mubarak-era prosecutors. He accuses remnants of the former regime of planting saboteurs in an effort to undermine the prosecution’s case.
"It was clear that these lawyers, who used to work with state security, were working against the benefit of their clients," he says.
Ultimately, however, Salem is convinced that any efforts to sabotage the case will prove fruitless. The preponderance of evidence against Mubarak is overwhelming, he asserts, enumerating a list of incriminating documents, testimonies and exhibits submitted to the court.
When Mubarak’s trial resumes on Sep. 5, the 83-year-old former dictator will share the dock with his ex-interior minister and six top security aides – also on trial for killing civilians. Mubarak also faces charges, along with his two sons and a business associate being tried in absentia, of squandering public funds and corruption. The defendants have denied all charges.
DFM coordinators are confident that plaintiff lawyers will present a more organised and effectual case at the hearing. They claim the group was able to introduce competent legal counsel and coordinate a strategy with attorneys of the victims’ families.
"The lawyers genuinely representing the martyrs’ families were very respectful and appreciative of this effort," says Marghany. "They recognise the importance of this trial and what’s at stake."