09.07.11

Will Mubarak Walk?

In Egypt’s trial of the century, prosecution witnesses sound like they’re testifying for the former dictator’s defense. Ursula Lindsey on a case full of holes.

Even though a judge has ordered a halt to live broadcasts of Hosni Mubarak’s trial, people all over Egypt remain glued to their radios and televisions. They can’t wait for any shred of news that emerges from the courtroom during intermissions. Together with his two sons and former interior minister Habib al-Adly, the ousted Egyptian president has pleaded innocent to charges of corruption and of ordering police to open fire on protesters during the uprising that overthrew his 30-year reign early this year. Putting Mubarak on trial was a central demand of the revolution. Now many Egyptians are wondering whether the defendants might actually go free. “We never imagined the prosecution would be this sloppy and unserious,” says Gamal Eid, a human-rights lawyer involved in the case. “They aren’t looking for justice.”

The public prosecutor’s office opened its case by calling to the stand a succession of senior police and intelligence officers—and each witness’s testimony seemed to strengthen the case for the defense. One by one, they steadfastly maintained that there had been no orders to shoot—regardless of the fact that hundreds of Egyptians were killed and thousands more seriously injured. On the contrary, the prosecution witnesses insisted, police were instructed not to carry their personal weapons. One officer testified that he had been told to deal with demonstrators “as your brothers.”

The testimony infuriated victims’ families and their lawyers—and their anger only grew when Mubarak supporters circumvented the proceedings’ supposedly tight security and managed to unfurl banners inside the courtroom proclaiming the toppled dictator’s innocence. The sessions have repeatedly been interrupted by outbursts and scuffles, while grim jokes circulated on Twitter claiming that evidence would soon be presented to show that the hundreds of dead protesters had actually killed themselves. Legal observers and human-rights groups are questioning the competence and trustworthiness of the public prosecutor’s office; they cite its record of collusion with Egypt’s intelligence services and its longtime reluctance to prosecute politically sensitive cases. The office didn’t even begin investigating the protesters’ deaths until more than a month after Mubarak had stepped down as president.

The prosecution’s case is full of holes. Officers who are accused of shooting demonstrators were never suspended from their positions, providing ample opportunities to intimidate witnesses and tamper with evidence. Recordings of phone calls and footage from security cameras have somehow been “lost” by the Interior Ministry and the Army. In fact, one of the first day’s witnesses is already serving a two-year prison sentence for destroying evidence in the case. Another witness was briefly detained today for alleged perjury after he contradicted information he had previously given prosecutors.

“The evidence is there,” says an anti-Mubarak lawyer. “It’s difficult, but not impossible. We haven’t lost hope.”

While the trial goes on inside the building formerly known the Mubarak Police Academy, phalanxes of riot police stand outside, on the alert for confrontations between the deposed dictator’s supporters and friends and relatives of the slain protesters. Groups calling themselves “Mubarak’s Sons” and “We’re Sorry, Mr. President” have picketed the trial since the start and have engaged in running battles with the aggrieved families of dead demonstrators.

The trial is expected to take months. Mubarak’s chief lawyer, Fareed el-Deeb, has become famous over the years as a defender of controversial figures, including several Mubarak critics who were targeted by the regime; he’s asking to call thousands of witnesses for Mubarak’s defense. Among them are the dictator’s former spy chief, Omar Suleyman, and his former defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, who now heads of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Both will appear next week, in court sessions that will be entirely closed to the press and the public.

In the end, Eid predicts, he and other lawyers for the victims’ families are the ones who will have to make the case against Mubarak. The evidence is there, Eid says. “It’s difficult, but not impossible. We haven’t lost hope.” After that, the verdict will be up to just one man: under Egypt’s legal system there is no jury, and instead the judge acts with broad powers, questioning witnesses and ultimately deciding how much weight to give each one’s testimony. No one can be sure the 83-year-old Mubarak will live that long. Since the trial began he’s spent every session on a gurney. His lawyers say he’s too sick to be in jail. At present, mounting frustration over the trial seems likely to result in a big turnout at anti-Mubarak protests this coming Friday. The former president was brought to trial only after months of public pressure. Now many Egyptians continue to wonder whether the country’s interim authorities really intend to hold him accountable, or if they’re only staging on a riveting bit of theater.