Mubarak is taken out of the courtroom in Cairo on Saturday. (Reuters)
Cairo, June 2: An Egyptian judge today sentenced former President Hosni Mubarak to life in prison for the killing of unarmed demonstrators during the first six days of protests that ended his rule.
It was the second verdict against an Arab ruler brought before the law by a popular revolt, after the conviction in absentia last year of Tunisia’s former leader. For many Egyptians it may be the greatest achievement so far of the uprising that began 16 months ago but has been stuttering ever since.
With the nation still awaiting the ratification of a new Constitution, the election of a new President and the hand-over of power by its military rulers, the decision is Egypt’s most significant step yet towards establishing the principle that no leader is above the law.
But even that victory appeared tenuous. Lawyers critical of Mubarak warned that the verdict was vulnerable to appeal, with the judge stating clearly that the prosecutors had presented no evidence that either Mubarak or his top aides had directly ordered the killing of protesters.
Instead, the judge, Ahmed Rafaat, found that Mubarak was an accessory to murder because he failed to stop the killing — which lawyers said would not meet the usual standards of proof for a murder conviction under Egyptian or international law.
Many said the verdict appeared contradictory because the judge had acquitted several lower-ranking security officials who would have been responsible for the police, raising questions about the chain of command.
The judge also dismissed corruption charges against Mubarak and his sons on technical grounds, and by late afternoon thousands of protesters angry at the limits of the decision were pouring into the streets in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and elsewhere.
Against an opaque backdrop of military rule, in which the generals, prosecutors and judges were appointed by Mubarak, demonstrators traded conspiracy theories, the most incendiary being that the ruling generals might have influenced the ruling, seeking to placate the street with a seemingly tough decision that would later collapse.
“It is all an act. It is a show,” said Alaa Hamam, 38, a Cairo University employee joining a protest in Tahrir Square, the symbolic heart of the uprising. “It is a provocation.”
The ruling has already become a political battleground in Egypt’s first competitive presidential race, expected to be decided this month by a runoff between the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood and Ahmed Shafik, Mubarak’s last Prime Minister.
Mubarak, 84, was housed during the trial in a military hospital where he enjoyed visits from his family, according to news reports, and a daily swim. After the verdict, a helicopter flew him to a Cairo prison.
State news media reported that he had complained of a heart attack while in the helicopter. He was treated in the helicopter and for two and a half hours refused to leave it, the state media said.
At the court, after a flowery tribute to the glory of the Egyptian uprising, the judge pronounced that “defendant Mohamed Hosni Mubarak be sentenced to a life term for the allegations ascribed to him, being an accessory to murder” in the killing of more than 240 demonstrators during the last six days of January 2011.
The judge sentenced Mubarak’s former interior minister Habib el-Adly to the same penalty.
The dismissal of murder charges against a group of Adly’s aides and other security officials raised questions about which officials, if any, might be held more directly responsible.
As for the corruption charges, the judge ruled that a statute of limitations had expired since Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, allegedly received a set of luxurious Red Sea vacation homes as a kickback from a Mubarak crony, Hussein Salem.
Mubarak showed no reaction to the verdict. Wearing dark glasses and a light-coloured tracksuit, he lay on a hospital gurney in the metal cage that holds criminal defendants here. Alaa Mubarak appeared to recite verses of the Quran as the verdict was read. Both sons stood in front of their father to try to shield him from the cameras, and after the ruling they had had tears in their eyes.
In issuing his decision, Judge Rafaat said Mubarak’s rule was “30 years of intense darkness — black, black, black, the blackness of a chilly winter night”.