Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak gets life sentence


CAIRO — The life sentence imposed on toppled President Hosni Mubarak for complicity in the deaths of hundreds of protesters marks an unprecedented milestone in Egypt’s path toward democracy yet serves as a reminder of the political limitations challenging rebellions that have swept the Arab world.

Mubarak epitomized the calculating autocrat, and Saturday’s verdict reverberated across a region that has seldom seen the strong so precipitously tumble in popular revolt. But behind the image of the disgraced leader propped up on a stretcher in the defendants’ cage remains a nation not fully free of his grasp.

His generals are still in charge and one of his loyalists may become the next president. And while Mubarak, 84, was ordered behind bars, six top police officials were acquitted of murder charges and the deposed leader and his two sons were found not guilty of financial corruption charges.

In Egypt, jubilation continues to collide with despair, and victory is tempered by setback. Mubarak has yanked his country across a spectrum of emotion even as his fate represents a cautionary tale for kings moving to quell protests in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain and a despot seeking to crush rebellion in the bloodied villages and cities of Syria.

The verdict also serves as fresh fodder in the Egyptian presidential race between Ahmed Shafik, the last prime minister to serve Mubarak, and Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.

Brotherhood members joined thousands of protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Saturday evening to rail against a case that appeared to protect the heart of Mubarak’s police state by absolving ranking police officials in the crackdown on an uprising that last year resulted in more than 840 deaths.

“This is injustice,” said Safeya Sayed Shedid, whose son died in the rebellion. “Now the blood of all martyrs has gone for nothing.”

The months-long trial was marked by fistfights, recanting witnesses and conflicting testimony. Presiding Judge Ahmed Refaat said the prosecution’s confusing evidence failed to prove that the deposed leader ordered the killings, but the judge blamed him for not stopping the bloodshed.

In an impassioned indictment that distilled decades of suppressed national rage, Refaat said Mubarak ruled for 30 years “without a conscience and with a cold heart,” subjecting his people to poverty, shanty towns and dirty drinking water. He said Mubarak allowed Egypt, once the “beacon” of the world, to collapse into “one of the most deteriorated, backward countries.”

The courtroom hushed as the jurist, dressed in a green sash, his glasses sliding down his nose, said, “I will pronounce judgment ... in the name of God.”

He ordered Mubarak and former Interior Minister Habib Adli to prison for the remainder of their lives for the killings of demonstrators from Jan. 25 to Feb. 11, 2011. Mubarak, dressed in a striped shirt and tan jacket, his hair brightly dyed black, listened stone-faced behind dark sunglasses. Elsewhere in the courtroom, and across the country, cheers rose.

But, as with so many things in Egypt over the last 16 months, the euphoria was short-lived. The murder charges against the senior police officials — who had directly commanded security forces during the uprising — were dismissed. Further outrage swept the courtroom when Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, who stood in white prison jumpsuits next to their father, were found not guilty of corruption charges. Similar offenses against the elder Mubarak were also dismissed.

Many said the proceedings amounted to a show trial orchestrated by the secretive military-backed government and remnants of Mubarak’s inner-circle. Legal experts said the acquittals increased the odds that Mubarak’s conviction would be overturned on appeal.

“This is an unjust, politicized verdict. If Adli was sentenced to life, then how on Earth did his aides get acquitted?” said Samir Helmi, a lawyer representing the families of victims. “The judge said that medical reports show injuries and bullets and yet he doesn’t consider those bullets to have been shot by police officers?”

The attorney added: “Was he waiting for the dead to come out of their graves and tell him personally?”

“God’s verdict is execution,” families of victims shouted in the court as a skirmish broke out and Refaat hastily left the bench.

Alaa Mubarak and brother Gamal, a banker once considered Egypt’s heir apparent, remained in custody under other corruption charges. Their father, an air force commander who became president after the 1981 assassination of Anwar Sadat, was wheeled out of the courtroom to a helicopter. He had been staying in an army-run hospital in what has been reported as relative luxury, but the prosecutor ordered his transfer to Tora prison hospital in south Cairo.

The state news agency MENA reported that Mubarak suffered a “health crisis” after the court session and was treated by doctors on the flight to the prison. Egyptian news reports said he wept and resisted leaving the helicopter.

The case marked the first time the leader of an Arab nation appeared in court on criminal charges after a popular revolt. Former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali was tried in absentia after fleeing to Saudi Arabia, and ousted Libyan dictator Moammar Kadafi was killed while in the custody of rebels. Longtime Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh negotiated an end to his rule and remains free.

Mubarak’s verdict comes amid a polarizing presidential runoff election campaign and battle over the drafting of a new constitution. Shafik, who once referred to Mubarak as his role model, is in a tight race with the Brotherhood’s Morsi in the June 16-17 election.

The contest pits a secular law-and-order retired fighter pilot against an influential voice in a rising political Islam, delineating the fault lines across an Arab world where the legacies of autocrats are being shaken by forces they once easily manipulated. Yet Mubarak’s state — built so completely around him for decades — remains formidable: The generals he appointed head the ruling military council, and millions of Egyptians weary of unrest and suspicious of Islamists make up the core of Shafik’s support.

“We can still see Mubarak and his regime in all aspects of our social and political life,” said Amal Khairy, a human relations manager. “Those in charge of the country are all Mubarak’s men promoting the same agenda as Mubarak. Starting from the military council to the lowest civil servant, they are all using the Mubarak way.”

The army, accused of numerous human rights abuses, has promised to turn power over to a civilian government by July. But the voices of the young secular activists who ignited the uprising have been muted against maneuverings by larger established forces. It has been clear for months that the rebellion that ousted Mubarak lacks a unifying vision to shape a new Egypt.

Judge Refaat recalled a more inspiring time. Before reading a verdict that would lay bare the nation’s divisions, he conjured last year’s dangerous winter days when Egyptians took to the streets. His words seemed overly demonstrative, as if he had to remind a nation, much of which is again preoccupied with day-to-day living, of Mubarak’s downfall and arrest.

“The peaceful sons of the homeland emerged from every deep ravine with all the pain they experienced from injustice, heartbreak, humiliation and oppression,” he said. “Carrying the burden of their suffering on their shoulders, they marched peacefully toward Tahrir Square ... demanding only justice, freedom and democracy.”

The judge suggested that the trial was a sign that the ideals of the revolution were being fulfilled. The court heard 250 hours of trial testimony and read through 60,000 documents. Refaat said he and his co-judges had not “rested for more than 100 days,” adding that “this has been a fair trial ... applied to the letter of the law.”

But others saw flawed proceedings and the design of a coverup.

“The verdict is disastrous and a mockery of judicial guidelines,” said Mohamed Maqboul, a lawyer for the families of victims. “What Mubarak and Adli got are appealable verdicts and will eventually be suspended. This is just a series of farcical shows in order to appease public opinion.”

By sunset, thousands of Egyptians had flocked to Tahrir Square, the iconic ground that launched a revolt that has yet to bring stability. They chanted and they cursed, not knowing, once again, where to put their trust.

Hassan is a news assistant in The Times’ Cairo bureau.