Egypt on edge before verdict in Mubarak trial

CAIRO Thu May 31, 2012 9:11am EDT

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians could hardly believe their eyes when Hosni Mubarak went on trial for complicity over the killing of protesters last year, but those who toppled him doubt Saturday's verdict will deliver justice for the almost 850 who died.

Still less will it deal with the legacy of an autocratic ruler who ran a police state that rode roughshod over human rights for 30 years until popular frustration exploded.

"Justice will not be achieved," said Ahmed el-Fekky, who was blinded in his left eye during the protests against Mubarak.

The verdict promised by Judge Ahmed Refaat more than three months after he closed the trial on February 22 is keenly awaited, not least because of its timing, bang in between two rounds of Egypt's first truly contested presidential election.

If Mubarak, 84, is convicted, he could face anything from three years in jail to the death penalty. Few expect the ex-air force chief to hang, given his age and the perceived weakness of the prosecution case. Appeals could prolong the case for years.

An acquittal or a light sentence could ignite a furious reaction on the streets from Egyptians already disappointed that their "revolution" has yet to bring much real change.

Many of those who took to the streets are frustrated that reform has yet to touch the army, the hated police force, the judiciary and much else of the system that propped up his rule.

Acquittals of low-ranking officers accused of shooting protesters have raised fear that no one will be brought to book.

In the run-off vote for the presidency on June 16-17 they must choose between Ahmed Shafiq, an ex-military man and Mubarak ally, and Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood, which struggled for decades against a state that mostly repressed it.

Any violence after the trial verdict could benefit Shafiq, who is running on a tough security platform. But as a symbol of the Mubarak era, he could also be hurt if an acquittal sparks broad popular anger at the military-dominated establishment.

The verdict on Mubarak, who is charged with corruption as well as complicity in the killings of protesters, could be postponed. On trial with him are former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six security officials, as well as his two sons Alaa and Gamal, and businessman Hussein Salem, who has fled Egypt.

UNPRECEDENTED TRIAL

Mubarak is the first Arab ruler to be brought to court by his own people. Tunisia's ex-president was tried in absentia.

But a chance to set a precedent of accountability in the most populous Arab nation may go begging, rights groups say.

"There has been no serious effort to investigate and hold accountable officials for deaths in custody, unlawful detention, torture and other systematic human rights abuses during the Mubarak era," Human Rights Watch said in a report on the trial.

The New York-based group said this "compromises the current government's reputation and sheds doubts on its commitment to uphold Egypt's human rights obligations and the rule of law".

Mubarak and his co-defendants are being tried in an ordinary court, but more than 12,000 civilians have faced military courts since the army deployed across Egypt on January 28, 2011.

The charges related to rights abuses cover only a six-day period from the start of the revolt on January 25, 2011.

"The last days of Mubarak's power are not what the people want put on trial," said Fikry Kharoub, the head of Alexandria's Court of Appeals, who filed his own case accusing Mubarak of high treason and disloyalty to the state throughout his rule.

"Egyptians will not settle for anything less than a fair trial, for themselves and their revolution," he told Reuters.

The former leader has been routinely wheeled on a hospital gurney into the cage used for defendants in Egyptian courts. He has said almost nothing at his trial appearances beyond confirming his presence and denying the charges against him.

Fekky, 24, argues that an acquittal or light sentence for Mubarak would be a provocative blessing in disguise.

"This will be a great chance to go back to the square, to get back on the right revolutionary path, to unite everyone who is divided and polarized," said the mechanical engineer.

NO SMOKING GUN?

The gasps heard when Mubarak first appeared behind bars in court on August 3 soon gave way to yawns as the trial, conducted under unreformed institutions and laws, dragged on, its confusion symbolizing Egypt's faltering army-led transition.

The prosecution, whose chief is a Mubarak appointee, appeared to produce no smoking gun and accused the Interior Ministry - an institution which is both the accused and the investigator in this case - of not cooperating.

When Mubarak stepped down, he flew to the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. Only after months of mass protests did the army council that had taken over allow his trial to go ahead.

Chaotic scenes of lawyers shouting inside the courtroom and rival protesters scuffling outside marred early trial sessions before the judge ordered television cameras out.

Many Egyptians resent Mubarak's decades in power when he entrenched the security establishment and pursued economic reforms that seemed to benefit only a select few. Others, dismayed by 15 months of disruption and economic setbacks, are nostalgic for the old order and the man who led it.

"Mubarak never did anything bad but he was surrounded by the wrong people," said 59-year-old farmer Omar Abdel Latif, echoing a common theme among the ex-president's supporters.

The defense team has argued all along that Mubarak and his former interior minister are not guilty on all counts.

"I am confident that Habib al-Adli and Mubarak are innocent of the accusations they are charged with," Adli's lawyer Essam al-Batawy said. "The judiciary should not be concerned by public opinion or what the street thinks. It is about justice."

Under Egyptian law, the judge can base his ruling not just on evidence, but on the circumstances of the crime - meaning he could convict Mubarak in view of his political responsibility.

But the verdict on Mubarak, who has spent his time in custody in a luxury army-run private hospital in Cairo, may leave many Egyptians still hungering for a sense of justice.

"That will turn into deep hatred of the system and distrust of the judiciary," said plaintiff lawyer Khaled Abu Bakr.

"Anyone who sees the investigations against Mubarak will see that they were impartial. For the ordinary Egyptian citizen, this trial was superficial," he said. "There is no doubt that an acquittal will be a major setback for the revolution."

(Editing by Alistair Lyon)

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