CAIRO (Reuters) - A judge handed down life terms to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his interior minister for their part in the killings of protesters last year, but Saturday’s long-awaited verdict produced some curious reactions.
Lawyers on the defense team congratulated each other. Those representing the families of the dead were downcast.
Moments later, the courtroom dissolved into chaos, as the plaintiff lawyers chanted slogans against the judiciary in one area and unrelated fistfights breaking out in another.
The climax to 250 hours of hearings in the trial of Mubarak and his co-defendants, whose opening on August 3 had gripped Egypt and an Arab world unaccustomed to seeing its autocratic rulers brought to account, had begun calmly enough in the court, even though pro- and anti-Mubarak demonstrators faced off outside.
“It was a ray of white, bright hope for the great people of Egypt, dreaming of a better future. The people woke up from a nightmare,” Judge Ahmed Refaat said in his opening remarks, as Mubarak lay impassively on a stretcher in a courtroom cage.
“The protesters went out only calling for justice, freedom and democracy,” Refaat said, his voice cracking at first.
Mubarak and Adli were accused of complicity in the deaths of protesters killed in last year’s uprising that swept the former president from power after 30 years. About 850 people were killed in the 18-day revolt.
Police officers looking tense and agitated stood guard in the suddenly silent courtroom as Refaat prepared to announce his verdict. “Mubarak is getting his sentence,” someone whispered.
The judge convicted Mubarak and Adli on the grounds that their high office meant they were politically responsible at the time of the killings, which they had failed to prevent.
But he acquitted the six senior police officials on trial with them, citing a lack of compelling evidence that orders had been given to shoot peaceful protesters, apparently confirming that the prosecution had failed to nail down the case.
That was why initial satisfaction at the life sentences swiftly turned sour for the plaintiff lawyers and the families of the dead, who turned their wrath on the judiciary and Interior Ministry, both unreformed vestiges of the Mubarak era.
The court erupted into a cacophony of chants. “The people want to liberate the judiciary,” spectators cried. “Mubarak left the palace, but his dogs are still in power.”
The judge struggled to make himself heard and then swiftly left the room without reading his verdict to the end.
A bewildered soldier looked on. “I don’t understand anything. What just happened? If Adli is guilty, why are the others innocent?” he asked a uniformed colleague.
As the defendants left the reinforced steel cage, two of the senior security officials smiled and flashed victory signs after their acquittal. Lawyers for the victims yelled “Where is the revolution? Where are the rights of the martyrs?”
The disorder worsened when a fight erupted between policemen and a journalist, who had seemingly insulted them. They exchanged punches and kicks.
Amid the chaos, Maha Youssef of al-Nadim Centre for Torture Victims told Reuters that the acquittals of the security officials laid the groundwork for Mubarak and Adli to appeal.
“This is a political verdict so that people calm down. It is guaranteed that it can be overturned in an appeal.”
One plaintiff lawyer standing nearby wiped away a tear and muttered to himself: “The revolution is gone.”
But across the room, Adli’s lawyers also criticized the outcome. “Today’s verdict is for the people. It is far away from the evidence. There are major contradictions in this verdict,” said one of them, Mohammed Elgendy.
“Did Mubarak and Adli kill those people themselves?” he asked. “If their aides or their accomplices are innocent, then who did they give orders to and how did they commit the crimes?”
Editing by Alistair Lyon