06.02.12

Hosni Mubarak Life Sentencing Stuns Egypt

Ousted president Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of protesters. Dan Ephron on how the ruling instantly divided the nation—and why an appeal could reverse it.

Judges in the trial of ousted Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak might have thought their ruling had something for everyone. The three-member panel sentenced Mubarak and his former interior minister to life in prison on Saturday for the killing of hundreds of protesters last year, but acquitted top security officials of the same charges.

Instead, their decision—which also cleared Mubarak and his two sons of corruption—appears to have angered both sides of an increasingly polarized Egyptian street: opponents of the old regime and people who feel it’s time to set aside the anger and move on.

Among the former, thousands took to the streets following the decision, accusing the judges of a soft sentencing that served the interests of the military council that has ruled Egypt since Mubarak was toppled and calling for an overhaul of the judicial system.

"Ahmed Rifaat, you coward, how much did you sell the martyrs' blood for?" protesters chanted at Cairo’s Tahrir Square, referring to the panel’s lead judge.

Among the latter, in Mubarak’s hometown of Kafr El-Maselha and in other parts of the country, some Egyptians held up portraits of the former president and decried the sentence as exceedingly harsh.

The verdict, carried live on Egyptian television, follows a 10-month trial that many Egyptians hoped would serve as a kind truth-and-reconciliation process for the three decades of Mubarak’s repressive rule. It focused mainly on the first days of the Egyptian revolution last year, when troops killed more than 800 protesters.

"The judge’s legal justification … practically guarantees Mubarak acquittal on appeal.”

But the proceedings were marked mostly by disarray. Judges banned cameras after the second day of the trial and kept the key testimony secret.

During today’s hourlong hearing, Mubarak lay on a gurney, clad in dark sunglasses and a white jogging suit. He did not react when the sentence was read. His two sons, Gamal and Alaa, stood in front of him to prevent cameras from filming their father.

Following the decision, scuffles erupted in the courtroom between supporters and opponents of the defendants.

The sentences handed down against Mubarak and Habib el-Adly were harsher than many analysts had anticipated. But legal scholars said the decision was undermined by the acquittals and by certain passages in the verdict itself.

At one point in the decision, the judges seemed to conclude there was no real evidence proving Mubarak had ordered police to open fire on the demonstrators. Instead, they said, he was guilty of failing to prevent the killings.

Egyptian legal commentator Amir Salem said the passage, combined with the acquittal of security officials clearly in the chain of command for such an order, gives defense lawyers significant material with which to challenge the decision.

"The judge’s legal justification for his overall ruling practically guarantees Mubarak and El-Adly’s acquittal on appeal," Salem told Egypt’s website Al Ahram.  

Even more surprising was the decision to clear Mubarak and his sons of the corruption charges, including accepting bribes from a land developer.

The judges cited the 10-year statute of limitations for the acquittal—the alleged bribery had taken place in 2000. But if that’s the case, it’s not clear why the judges agreed to consider the charges in the first place.

After the decision, authorities took Mubarak by helicopter to Tora prison hospital, a downgrade from his accommodations over the past year at a plush military hospital. Egyptian media said Mubarak initially refused to leave the helicopter, pleading to be taken back to the military facility.

His two sons will continue serving at Tora prison despite their acquittals. They face a second trial on charges of insider trading.