Egypt's 'last pharaoh' Hosni Mubarak gets life prison term

The former president becomes first autocrat unseated in Arab Spring to be tried, convicted and sentenced by a court in his own country.

An image grab taken from Egyptian state TV shows ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak sitting inside a cage in a courtroom during his verdict hearing in Cairo. AFP
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CAIRO // Judge Ahmed Refaat went hoarse. But then, in a booming voice, he sentenced Hosni Mubarak to life in prison yesterday for his role in the killing of hundreds of protesters during the uprising that forced him to resign last year.

With his words, Egypt’s all-powerful president for nearly 30 years, the 84-year-old many called “the last pharaoh”, becamethe first autocrat unseated by the Arab Spring to be tried, convicted and sentenced in person by a court in his own country.

Mr Refaat, the head of the North Cairo Criminal Court, headed a panel of three judges who heard the case. He began yesterday’s hearing with a 15-minute speech describing the “black, black, black” years under Mubarak’s autocratic regime before sentencing the former president and Habib Al Adly, his minister of interior, to 25 years in prison, a term that is considered a life sentence in Egypt.

The judge said Mubarak was guilty because he failed to prevent the killings, not because he ordered them.

Lawyers for both men said they would appeal, but under Egyptian law, the Court of Cassation would review only the application of law, not the evidence.

Mubarak, who was wheeled into a cage in the courtroom wearing a tracksuit and sunglasses, betrayed no emotion as the sentences were read out. His sons Alaa and Gamal, wearing white prison uniforms, tried to block views of their father.

Among those present to hear the sentencing were dozens of lawyers representing the families of those killed in the uprising that began on January 25 last year.

As Mr Refaat finished his speech, the hushed courtroom erupted into a tumult of fights between Mubarak supporters and opponents, whose chants for “cleansing the judiciary” showed that they saw the verdict as a political decision in favour of the old regime.

Clashes broke out in front of the police academy building that had been converted into a courtroom for the trial.

For those pleased with the verdict, the joy melted away when it sank in that seven others on trial had been acquitted. Thousands poured into Tahrir Square to demonstrate and there were other protests across the country.

Assem Hassan, 30, a sound technicianin Cairo, condemned the verdict. “Of course I’m not happy with the verdict. I wanted an execution,” he said.

Six aides of Al Adly were also found not guilty, including the former head of the reviled state security, Hassan Abdel Rahman, because evidence submitted to support the charges was “not convincing”, Mr Refaat said.

“On what basis did the aides of Adly get off?” Mr Hassan said. “Then who shed the blood of the Egyptians? They should have received sentencing that acted as an example to others: at least 10 or 15 years.

“I think the trial was rigged. People are definitely going to Tahrir and I will go of course. I don’t see there is anyone good in the run-off elections. We are now in the same position we were when Mubarak was ruling.”

Corruption charges against Mubarak’s sons were dropped because the statute of limitations on the allegations had expired. They had been accused of receiving villas in exchange for political favours. However, they will remain in prison without bail because they face separate corruption charges in a case related to insider trading and stock-market manipulation that was announced on Wednesday.

Hussein Salem, a business tycoon who was being tried in his absence over his role in selling villas to the Mubarak family to win a deal to export natural gas to Israel, was also found not guilty. He still faces other criminal charges – including one related to the gas deal – and is awaiting extradition from Spain, where he was arrested last year and charged with money laundering.

“This is a profound lesson for any others who seek the same powers as Mubarak,” said George Ishak, a long-time opponent of the Mubarak regime and a founder of the Kefaya movement – “enough” in Arabic – whose members played a crucial role in the first days of the uprising.

“Nobody can go back to the ways of Mubarak. But I still have a very bad feeling about the trial. How can we let the assistants to the minister of interior get off? These are dangerous men and they will now be free.”

The 30-minute court session sent the country’s emotions reeling and speculation immediately turned to how the sentences would affect the presidential run-off on June 16-17.

The Muslim Brotherhood called for a retrial with new evidence. “The public prosecution did not carry out its full duty in gathering adequate evidence to convict the accused for killing protesters,” said Yasser Ali, a spokesman for the presidential campaign of Mohammed Morsi. Mr Morsi is the chairman of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

Mr Morsi’s opponent in the upcoming run-off is Ahmed Shafiq, the former minister of civil aviation who, like Mubarak, is also a former commander of the air force. He said yesterday that all verdicts “must be accepted”.

His campaign issued a statement saying that the verdict proved that “no one is above the law”.

The polarising choice between a prominent Islamist and a man considered to be part of the old regime has led to a feeling of despair among a huge section of the Egyptian population, especially those who were among the vanguard protesting in the uprising.

But the sentencing may serve to “sharpen the contrasts between the two candidates”, said Shadi Hamid, the director of research at the Brookings Doha Centre.

“It puts the past in the front and centre,” he said. “It makes the election much more of a revolution versus non-revolution vote. This will make Shafiq’s past and which side he was on a much more relevant point of discussion.”

On arriving by helicopter at Tora Prison yesterday – the same network of buildings where Egypt’s security apparatus held political prisoners for years without trial – Mubarak refused to be transported to his cell and cried in protest. The former president had a “health crisis” on the helicopter, Egypt state television reported.

Since Mubarak stepped down on February 11 last year he has not spent a single day in a prison because of health concerns that led security officials to hold him in hospitals in Sharm El Sheikh and Cairo.

* With additional reporting by Rebecca Collard, Reuters and the Associated Press