CAIRO An Egyptian court has dropped its case against former President Hosni Mubarak over the killing of protesters in the 2011 uprising that ended his 30-year rule and symbolized hopes for a new era of political openness and accountability.
Mubarak, 86, was sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for conspiring to murder 239 demonstrators, sowing chaos and creating a security vacuum during the 18-day revolt, but an appeals court ordered a retrial.
His supporters erupted in celebration when the verdicts of that retrial - which also cleared Mubarak's former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, and six aides - were read out. The defendants had denied the charges.
Supporters outside court, carrying pictures of the ex-air force officer who dominated the most populous Arab nation for three decades, far outnumbered families of protesters who died in the Tahrir Square revolt that had embodied the hopes of Arab Spring uprisings that spread through the region.
The judge said criminal charges should never have been brought against Mubarak. The decision can be appealed, however, and the former leader was not freed as he is serving a three-year jail term in a separate embezzlement case.
Many Egyptians who lived through Mubarak's rule view it as a period of autocracy and crony capitalism.
His overthrow led to Egypt's first free election. But the winner, Mohamed Mursi, was ousted last year by then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, following protests against his rule.
Sisi, who went on to win a presidential election in May, launched a crackdown on Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Authorities have jailed thousands of Brotherhood supporters and sentenced hundreds to death in mass trials that drew international criticism.
By contrast, Mubarak-era figures are slowly being cleared of charges and a series of laws curtailing political freedoms have raised fears among activists that the old leadership is regaining influence. Saturday's verdict was seen as the latest sign that rights won in 2011 were being eroded.
"This is a political verdict. The judiciary has been procrastinating for four years so they could clear him after hope had been lost," the father of Ahmed Khaleefa, 19, who was killed in 2011, told Reuters outside the court.
"The verdict hit us like bullets. I consider that my son Ahmed died today."
A few dozen young people gathered to protest the verdict in the city of Suez, site of the first death of the uprising. But they were quickly dispersed by police, security sources said.
Security forces fired tear gas and birdshot and aimed water hoses on a crowd of around a thousand demonstrators who had gathered in downtown Cairo.
They had been chanting slogans against Mubarak and against Sisi and Mursi, the two men who have served as president since him. An eyewitness said both Mursi supporters and liberal secular protesters appeared to be present.
Health Ministry spokesman Hossam Abdel Ghaffar told Reuters two protesters were killed and nine injured in the clashes but said he had no further details.
CLEARED OF GRAFT
Hundreds of people died when security forces clashed with protesters in the weeks before Mubarak was forced from power.
Othman al-Hefnawy, a lawyer representing some families of protesters who died, said the verdict left open the question: If Mubarak, his interior minister and their security aides were not responsible for the deaths of 239 protesters, then who was?
The court also cleared Mubarak and a former oil minister of graft charges related to gas exports to Israel.
In a separate corruption case, charges were dropped against Mubarak and his sons Alaa and Gamal, with Judge Mahmoud Kamel al-Rashidi saying too much time had elapsed since the alleged crime took place for the court to rule.
State television showed Gamal and Alaa kissing their father's forehead after the ruling. Gamal also hugged former Interior Minister Adly, who appeared to be in tears. Mubarak's sons and Adly will also remain in jail serving other sentences.
Mubarak will remain in an army hospital, where he is serving the three-year embezzlement sentence handed down in May.
(Additional reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Omar Fahmy in Cairo and Yusri Mohamed in Ismailia; Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Ralph Boulton and Dan Grebler)