Cairo - An Egyptian judge on Saturday sentenced former President to life in prison for the killing of unarmed demonstrators during the first six days of protests that ended his rule.
It was the second verdict against an Arab ruler brought before the law by a popular revolt, after the conviction in absentia last year of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and for many Egyptians it may be the greatest achievement so far of the uprising that began 16 months ago. With the nation still awaiting the ratification of a new constitution, the election of a new president and the hand-over of power by its military rulers, the decision is’s most significant step yet toward establishing the principle that no leader is above the law.
Yet lawyers critical of Mr. Mubarak immediately warned that the verdict may not survive an appeal. The judge acquitted several lower-ranking security officials of responsibility for the same deaths, raising questions about the chain of command. He also dismissed corruption charges against Mr. Mubarak and his sons on technical grounds, and by early afternoon protesters angry at the flimsiness of the decision were pouring into Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the revolt.
Egyptian state television reported that within hours of the decision, Mr. Mubarak, 84, had suffered a "health crisis" as he was being flown by helicopter to a Cairo prison from the military hospital where he had awaited the verdict. He was being treated inside the helicopter which he refused to leave, the state network reported.
After a flowery tribute to the glory of the Egyptian uprising, the judge, Ahmed Rafaat, pronounced that “defendant Mohamed Hosni Mubarak be sentenced to a life term for the allegations ascribed to him, being an accessory to murder” in the killing of more than 240 demonstrators in the last six days of January 2011. But the judge also acknowledged that the prosecutors had presented no evidence that either Mr. Mubarak or his top aides had directly ordered the killing of protesters.
Instead, the judge held Mr. Mubarak responsible for failing to stop the killing — an unusually low standard of proof for a murder conviction under either Egyptian or international law. The judge sentenced Mr. Mubarak’s former interior minister Habib el-Adly to the same penalty for the same reasons.
But the dismissal of murder charges against a group of Mr. Adly’s aides and other security officials raised questions about which officials, if any, might be held more directly responsible. As for the corruption charges, the judge ruled that a 10-year statute of limitations had expired since Mr. Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, allegedly received a set of luxurious Red Sea vacation homes as a kickback from a Mubarak crony, Hussein Salem.
Mr. Mubarak showed no reaction to the verdict. Wearing dark glasses and a light-colored tracksuit, Mr. Mubarak lay reclining on a hospital gurney in the metal cage that holds criminal defendants here, and he blinked several times after the judge read the verdict.
Alaa Mubarak appeared to recite verses of the Koran as the verdict was read. Both sons stood in front of their father to shield him from the cameras, and had tears in their eyes when the ruling came out. They still face charges in an unrelated stock-manipulation case announced last week.
Reading his decision, Judge Rafaat waxed poetic about Mr. Mubarak’s government and the uprising that ended it. Mr. Mubarak’s rule was “30 years of intense darkness — black, black, black, the blackness of a chilly winter night,” the judge declared, when officials “committed the gravest sins, tyranny and corruption without accountability or oversight as their consciences died, their feelings became numb and their hearts in their chests turned blind.”
“The peaceful sons of the homeland came out of every deep ravine with all the pain they experienced from injustice, heartbreak, humiliation and oppression,” he added. “Bearing the burden of their suffering on their shoulders, they moved peacefully toward Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt’s capital, demanding only justice, freedom and democracy.”
But as soon as the verdict was read, scuffles and chaos broke out inside the courtroom. “The people want to cleanse the judiciary,” chanted an angry crowd of lawyers for the victims and other supporters.
The decision now becomes a political battleground in Egypt’s first competitive presidential election. It may become a new liability for Ahmed Shafik, Mr. Mubarak’s last prime minister, who is competing against the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood in a runoff in two weeks.
Mr. Shafik presided over the cabinet when police failed to protect unarmed protesters in Tahrir Square from a deadly assault by a mob of Mubarak supporters, and his opponents hope reaction to the verdict will galvanize public opinion against him. Many assert that if elected he would pardon his former boss, and Mr. Shafik had yet to respond to the sentencing. His opponent, Mohamed Morsi, has called for new inquiries into the abuses of the Mubarak era.
If the verdict stirs a new wave of protests, however, that could also increase the receptiveness to Mr. Shafik’s core promise to restore law and order.
In the parking lot outside the police academy used as a courthouse, the crowd initially exploded with cries of joy at news of the life sentence. “I am so happy — this is the greatest happiness I have ever felt,” said Rada Mohamed Mabrouk, a 60-year-old retiree in a black cloak. “The martyrs are all of our children.”
But the elation soon gave way. “They are all innocent of corruption, when everyone knows they were all corrupt from beginning to end?” said Mostafa Fathy, 28, a demonstrator from the impoverished neighborhood of Imbaba. “This is the opposite verdict from what we all expected.”
Other demonstrators brandished nooses to symbolize the sentence they sought. “We wanted them to be slaughtered,” said Hamad Essam, 37, a laborer.
Hanan Mohamed el-Rifai, 28, of Alexandria, said the police killed her little brother, Kareem, 15, with a bullet to his heart. “They are all innocent? Gamal and Alaa are innocent?” she said. “We will protest. We will turn the world upside down. We will go to Tahrir Square. We will protest in Alexandria.”
The credibility of the Mubarak trial was in many ways compromised from the start. It took place under military rule by the council of generals who took power at his ouster in February 2011. The court operated under a patchwork of old laws and military declarations rather than a permanent constitution. The generals, judges and prosecutors were all Mubarak appointees, and the degree of judicial independence from the military council has never been clear.
All acted under the extraordinary political pressures unleashed by the revolution, and the lack of transparency has invited conspiracy theories about behind-the-scenes machinations of the generals and judges.
Instead of a sweeping examination the systemic abuses of the Mubarak government, the prosecutors rushed the case to trial in an apparent attempt to placate street protesters. The criminal investigation was announced just days after Mr. Mubarak made a defiant public statement — his first public words since leaving office — that fired up angry protests demanding justice against him.
Prosecutors charged Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Adly with directing the police to shoot unarmed protesters during just the first six days of the protests last year. Although Health Ministry officials say about 840 civilians were killed during the protests and many others injured, prosecutors narrowed the case to only about 250 deaths that took place in public squares and other areas far from police stations, where the police have more latitude to shoot to defend their facilities.
Despite the acknowledged corruption through the Mubarak government, the prosecutors also charged Mr. Mubarak and his two sons with one instance of profiting from their positions. The prosecutors contended that the Mubaraks had received steep discounts on several luxurious vacation homes near the Red Sea from Mr. Salem, who is awaiting extradition from Spain. Mr. Mubarak, meanwhile, allowed companies controlled by Mr. Salem to make profitable deals to resell Egyptian natural gas to Israel and buy public land on the Red Sea for development.
Whether the verdict in Mr. Mubarak’s case advances or hinders Egypt’s steps toward the rule of law will depend in part on his appeals and further trials. In another case seen as a test of the rule of law three years ago, Hisham Talaat Mustafa, the politically connected real estate tycoon and lawmaker, was sentenced to death for ordering the murder of a Lebanese starlet, only to have the penalty reduced on appeal to a few years in prison.
“The trial is far from over,” Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said from outside the courthouse. “We will be in this for years.”
This article, "Egyptian Court Sentences Mubarak to Life in Prison," originally appears at the New York Times News Service.