CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt’s publicly reviled former interior minister was jailed for 12 years on Thursday, the first member of Hosni Mubarak’s cabinet to be sentenced, a step that sent a message that no one in the new Egypt is above the law.
Habib al-Adli, hated for the brutality of his police by the protesters who ousted Mubarak on February 11, led a powerful security apparatus and was once seen as untouchable.
“Justice couldn’t taste sweeter and will most definitely prevail,” said interior designer Karim El Hayawan, 33, who joined the protesters who massed in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Adli’s jail sentence for profiteering and money laundering shows the generals now ruling Egypt are responding to public demands to hold Mubarak’s officials to account and end the abuse of power, analysts say.
Adli faces graver charges of killing protesters, as well as squandering public funds. A lawyer on the committee that charged him with murder has said he wants the death sentence.
More than 800 people died in the uprising after police fired rubber bullets, live ammunition, water cannon and tear gas at protesters who took to the streets on January 25. Days later, the police lost control and were withdrawn. Then the army moved in.
“This is just an appetizer. Twelve years for profiteering only gets us rolling. That is just for someone who abused his power for personal gains, let’s hold our breath when he falls for killing protesters,” Khaled Tawfeek said on a Facebook group set up in memory of an activist who died in police custody.
Egyptians have been closely watching the fate of Adli, whose police crushed the smallest of protests for years and frequently rounded up Islamists without charge. Rights groups say torture was routine in Egypt’s jails under Adli.
Adli has been held in a prison on the outskirts of Cairo alongside a former prime minister, other cabinet members and top officials, and Mubarak’s two sons. One of those, Gamal, was once tipped as a future president.
The former president himself is also under investigation for abuse of power, embezzlement and responsibility for the deaths of some protesters, and is being held in a hospital in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.
In his trial, Adli stood in court in a cage, where defendants traditionally stand -- a scene that would have been unimaginable just three months ago.
“In the long history of Egypt, no minister of the interior -- and ministers of the interior are among the most powerful of ministers -- has ever been charged, tried and convicted,” said political scientist Mustapha al-Sayyid.
“This is very important because we are beginning to see the principle of rule of law being exercised,” he said.
A judicial source said Adli had received seven years for money laundering, with a further five years for profiteering. The state news agency put the value of fines and confiscated assets at 23.2 million Egyptian pounds ($3.9 million).
Several police stations were torched during the uprising, partly because Egyptians were frustrated with a police force many say was corrupt and acted as if it were above the law.
Ordinary Egyptians accuse Adli of deliberately causing chaos during the revolt when thousands of prisoners walked out of prison and even traffic police left the streets.
Police are back on duty but many Egyptians still worry about a security vacuum under Egypt’s new interior minister, Mansour el-Essawy, and some hanker for Adli’s firm hand.
“He was a good minister and he had a grip on the country, unlike Essawi. Egypt needs a strong interior minister who people are scared of,” said driver Abdel Monem Hasan, 35.
But Adli’s conviction for corruption may ‘weaken support for a return to Mubarak’s era, political scientist Sayyed said.
“This is a demonstration that the former regime was a corrupt regime ... This is important for some sections of population who are still sympathetic to Mubarak,” he said.
Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Shaimaa Fayed and Isabel Coles; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Kevin Liffey