By Nancy A. Youssef and Mohanned Sabry, McClatchy Newspapers –
CAIRO, Egypt — An Egyptian judge Saturday sentenced deposed President Hosni Mubarak and his minister of interior to life in prison for the deaths of nearly 1,000 protesters during the uprising that led to Mubarak’s resignation.
But the judge acquitted five others in the case, including Mubarak’s two sons and his one-time chief of security forces, in a surprising ruling that both elated and further polarized the country.
State television reported hours later that Mubarak had suffered a heart attack after the verdict was pronounced and was being treated aboard a helicopter that had been ferrying him to prison.
Family members of those who were killed during the January 2011 uprising reacted with joy when they heard the announcement of Mubarak’s conviction outside the courtroom, then expressed pain and frustration when his subordinates were acquitted. Celebratory fireworks were followed by protesters throwing rocks and shoes at the police surrounding the courthouse.
The ruling may have marked an inglorious end to Mubarak, but it signaled that the state he created was still intact, families of those killed said. Many could not understand how the leaders could be convicted but those who carried out the killings could go free. Within minutes, scuffles broke both inside and outside the courtroom.
“I thought I would be happy, and I was, but when I heard that everyone else was cleared, I realized this was just a plot,” to give the appearance of a government serving justice, said Soha Sayed, 43, as she carried a large poster of her husband, Osama, who was killed Jan. 28, 2011. “The regime is still in power. They can walk free today.”
It is an allegation that has plagued Egypt since the tumultuous 18 days of protests that ended in Mubarak’s resignation. Each seemingly major milestone toward reforms is clouded by split decisions, uncertainty and a feeling among many Egyptians that rather than a revolution, so far, only the head of the state has changed.
“It’s a political verdict,” Amir Salem, a top attorney for the victims, said angrily as he left the courtroom. The verdict was designed “to save the regime.”
In his ruling, Judge Ahmed Refaat, head of the northern Cairo criminal court and a Mubarak appointee, said that the prosecution never proved that Mubarak and Minister of Interior Habib al Adly ordered the killings. But as those responsible for the state, they were complicit by not stopping the killings. They were charged for deaths between Jan. 25 and Jan. 31, 2011.
As Refaat began handing down his ruling at the Cairo Police Academy on the outskirts of the capital, many believed he was about to hand a heavy sentence to Mubarak and his co-defendants. In almost Shakespearean Arabic, he described the uprising that ended Mubarak’s rule as a new dawn. Dozens of victim’s lawyers cheered as he began to speak.
“It came with fresh air, pure from all forms of pollution for the people to breathe after a dark nightmare that did not last for half a night but for more than 30 black, black years, as black as a winter night,” Refaat said before announcing the verdicts.
In explaining the acquittal of the others, Refaat said the prosecution never presented any evidence.
“The case files did not include any orders or evidence proving to the court that the acquitted defendants committed such crime,” he said.
Mubarak and al Adly were charged with killing and injuring protesters. Mubarak was also charged with offering bribes for business deals in Sharm el Sheikh but was acquitted because the statute of limitations had expired, the judge said.
Because of the security officers standing around the cage, no one could see Mubarak’s reaction inside the courtroom. State television panned to his sons, Gamal and Alaa, as their father’s verdict was read. But the French news agency AFP reported that Mubarak was in tears as he refused to leave the helicopter transporting him to Tora prison compound in southern Cairo, where he was expected to serve his sentence.
Mubarak’s attorneys vowed to appeal, and both sides agreed the judge gave them ample grounds in his explanation of the verdict.
Unlike American courts, Egyptian judges have broad powers to determine guilt or innocence and lay down verdicts.
The Mubarak verdict came as Egyptians were still trying to come to terms with the results of its first democratic election last week that led to two polarizing finalists in a runoff later this month.
The campaign of one of the candidates, Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement calling for a new trial, saying the prosecution had not been given enough evidence.
The other candidate in the runoff, Ahmed Shafik, who Mubarak appointed prime minister on Jan. 29 as the killings were taking place, declared that the verdict showed that no man was above the law.
Other candidates who failed to make it into the runoff, including Arab nationalist Hamdeen Sabahi and moderate Islamist Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, called for Egyptians to go to Tahrir Square later Saturday.
Mubarak is the first fallen Arab leader of the Arab Spring to face a judge.