Hosni Mubarak, toppled by an uprising last year after 30 years ruling Egypt, was sentenced to life in jail on Saturday for his role in killing protesters after a trial that sets a precedent for holding Middle East autocrats to account.
But it was not enough for thousands of Egyptians who poured onto the streets after the verdict. Some wanted Mubarak executed, others feared the judge’s ruling exposed weaknesses in the case that could let the former military man off on appeal.
Protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the focus for the uprising that drove Mubarak from office on Feb. 11, 2011. Others in the second city of Alexandria chanted: “We are done with talk, we want an execution!”
The ruling came at a politically fraught time for Egypt, two weeks before a run-off in its first free presidential election that will pit the Muslim Brotherhood, which was banned under Mubarak, against the deposed autocrat’s last prime minister.
After a silence during sentencing, scuffles broke out inside the court between security officers and people chanting “void, void” and “The people want the cleansing of the judiciary.”
Rather than a healing experience that many Egyptians hoped for, many see the trial that acquitted top security officials showing how much of Mubarak’s old order was still in place. Islamists and others called for street protests on Saturday.
It was the first time an ousted Arab leader had faced an ordinary court in person since a wave of uprisings shook the Arab world last year, sweeping away four entrenched rulers.
A senior lawyer for Mubarak’s defense team told AFP the strongman, who was taken to a Cairo prison after the hearing, will appeal the sentence.
Asked if Mubarak was likely to win the appeal, lawyer Yasser Bahr said: “We will win, one million percent.”
Also given a life term for the killings was the 84-year-old former strongman’s interior minister Habib al-Adly, but six ex-police commanders were acquitted.
Corruption charges against Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, were dropped due to the expiry of a statute of limitations, and the former president was acquitted in one of the graft cases.
Mubarak, who wore dark sunglasses and a beige track-suit, had his arms folded and showed no emotion inside his caged dock,as Chief Judge Ahmed Refaat read out the verdict.
His two sons, Alaa and Gamal, looking tired with dark circles under their eyes, appeared close to tears on hearing the verdict.
“It’s vindicating to Egyptians to see Mubarak and his interior minister sentenced to life, but the verdict raises more questions than answers,” said Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, who was outside the court with members of the victims’ families.
“The court appears to have found no evidence that the killings were committed by policemen. It seems the court convicted Mubarak and Adly for failing to prevent the killings,” Bahgat told AFP.
“It’s 100 percent certain that this will go to appeal and the court is very likely to order a retrial,” said Bahgat, a respected activist and lawyer.
A grim picture
In delivering the ruling, Judge Refaat painted a grim picture of life under Mubarak, listing hardship after hardship suffered during his three decade rule.
He said some “went hungry” and spoke of conditions in the “rotting slums.”
Refaat said the protesters who had participated in the 2011 uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were “peaceful” and only wanted “justice, freedom and democracy.”
Outside the courtroom, clashes broke following the sentencing, forcing police to use stun grenades to control the crowds.
Mubarak, the only autocrat toppled in the Arab Spring to be tried in person, Adly and the six others were facing charges over their involvement in ordering the deaths of some of the estimated 850 people killed.
The former strongman, his sons Alaa and Gamal and business associate Hussein Salem, who fled to Spain, were also on trial over an alleged bribe.
And Mubarak was accused of selling natural gas to Israel at lower than market prices.
A security official said 5,000 policemen and 2,000 soldiers had been deployed to secure the court, at the Police Academy on Cairo’s outskirts, to which the ailing Mubarak was helicoptered in from a military hospital.
After the hearing, he was transferred to the medical wing of Tora prison, a security official said.
Bowed to demands
Egypt has been ruled by the military since Mubarak was forced to resign on February 11 last year, after 18 days of nationwide protests.
Mubarak was held at a hospital in the Red Sea resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh following his arrest last year, and the military appeared to bow to protester demands that he and former regime officials be put on trial.
But the military insists the prosecution’s investigations and the charges eventually filed were independent judicial decisions.
However, critics say the investigations were hasty and sloppy, resulting in a trial based on patchwork evidence that may see Mubarak acquitted.
The ex-president was brought to Cairo for the trial, which began on August 3, and has been held there since.
During the trial, Mubarak was wheeled into the lecture hall that serves as a courtroom on a stretcher. He reportedly suffers from a heart condition, but the health ministry has denied his lawyer’s claim that he has cancer.
Along with Adly, Mubarak’s co-defendants include six former police commanders.
They have all denied that they ordered police to shoot protesters or use deadly force during the uprising, in which demonstrators torched police stations across the country.
The verdict comes just two weeks before a run-off in presidential elections that will pit Mubarak’s former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq against the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Mursi in a highly polarizing race.
It is the first openly contested presidential election in any of the Arab countries swept by regional protests and uprisings that challenged decades of autocratic rule.
But the revolt also led to a deteriorating economy and increased lawlessness in Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous country, that has helped Shafiq, a symbol of Mubarak’s regime, win a surprising amount of support.