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Mubarak Sentenced to Life Term in Egypt, But Protests Erupt as Sons, Aides Avoid Convictions

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Protests have erupted across Egypt following the sentencing of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other former regime officials. On Saturday, an Egyptian court gave Mubarak and his former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, life in prison for failing to stop the killing of unarmed demonstrators during the protests that ended Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule. However, the court dismissed corruption charges against Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, on technical grounds. The court also acquitted six former police chiefs for their roles during the uprising when 840 protesters were killed and more than 6,000 injured. No one was found guilty of actually ordering the killing of protesters. The verdicts sparked demonstrations across the country, with tens of thousands rallying in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and in other cities. We go to Cairo to speak with Heba Morayef, a Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch who closely monitored the Mubarak trial. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Crowds continue to fill Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the outcome of the trial of ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and other former regime officials. On Saturday, an Egyptian court sentenced Mubarak and his former interior minister, Habib el-Adly, to life in prison for failing to stop the killing of unarmed demonstrators during last year’s protests that ended Mubarak’s nearly 30-year rule. However, the court dismissed corruption charges against Mubarak and his sons, Alaa and Gamal, on technical grounds. The court also acquitted six former police chiefs of their roles during the uprising last year when 840 protesters were killed and more than 6,000 injured. No one was found guilty of actually ordering the killing of protesters.

The verdicts sparked protests across Egypt, with several thousand angry demonstrators gathering in Cairo’s Tahrir Square as well as Alexandria, Suez and other cities Saturday. One protester, Ahmed Metwaly, explained why he was unsatisfied with the trials’ outcome.

AHMED METWALY: [translated] We were not expecting the verdicts that were announced yesterday, for the six interior minister’s aides to be acquitted and the sons of Mubarak also acquitted. Then who committed these crimes against the people? Who killed the revolutionaries? Did we kill them? Did we kill ourselves? Who squandered the country’s resources? Did we do that?

AMY GOODMAN: Demonstrators say they were also concerned Mubarak’s conviction will likely be reversed on appeal. Many protesters also were frustrated by the presidential elections, which will see Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, in a runoff against Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

For more, we go now to Cairo to speak with Heba Morayef, who closely monitored the Mubarark trial. She’s Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.

Heba, welcome to Democracy Now! First, your reaction to the verdict?

HEBA MORAYEF: Well, we didn’t really have very high expectations for this trial because we had seen, from the beginning, the quality of the investigation conducted by the prosecutors, the kind of witnesses that they summoned and the quality of the evidence they presented. But I still think that this outcome was shocking, and shocking for two reasons, even for those of us within the human rights community who were closely following the trial. The inconsistency in applying the failure to prevent violence standard—the judge sentenced Mubarak and Adly, his former minister of interior, on the grounds that they knew of the violence and they failed to prevent it, but he didn’t apply the same standard to the four Ministry of Interior assistant ministers—Ahmed Ramzy, the head of the riot police, the one in fact ordering the deployment; Hassan Abdel Rahman, the head of Egypt’s secret police, the security investigations. So, that was a shocking thing—the acquittal of the four Ministry of Interior chiefs and, of course, the fact that despite the evidence presented before the judge, there wasn’t in the end a finding that anybody was responsible. And it’s important to remember, this trial looks at the killing of protesters in Tahrir Square and in the other squares around Egypt. There are separate sets of police trials that are looking only at the killings that took place in front of police stations. So, in fact, nobody has been held responsible, apart from Adly and Mubarak, for the killing of hundreds of protesters in the square.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the minister of interior, Habib el-Adly.

HEBA MORAYEF: So, Habib el-Adly presided over the Ministry of Interior and, I think, best represents what Mubarak’s police state was all about. He was the one signing thousands of administrative detention orders under Egypt’s emergency law. He presided over the Ministry of Interior, which used torture systematically, systematically against political detainees but also as part of regular criminal investigations. And enforced disappearance, which is an international crime, was also taking place while Habib el-Adly was minister of interior. So, known for using all of these abusive practices.

And then the protests of January came around, and instead of just using the same kind of excessive force that we were used to at protests under Mubarak, which we’d regularly monitor, there was an escalation. And the riot police started using live ammunition against protesters on that day. And so, I think it’s absolutely right that Adly is the—ultimately, the one responsible for the way the Ministry of Interior behaved on those six days, which this trial is looking at. It’s looking at January 25th to January 31st. But in an equal measure, the other Ministry of Interior officials were also decision makers. These were the policy—the officials who were responsible for the policies of the Ministry of Interior. And at the same time, there hasn’t been any accountability at the police officer level for the people who actually shot protesters on those days.

AMY GOODMAN: Why the limited scope of when the killings took place? Why were they only tried ’til—for the end of, what was it, January?

HEBA MORAYEF: I’m sorry, Amy. I didn’t catch that.

AMY GOODMAN: The scope of when the killings took place, what these men were tried for, was a limited period of time.

HEBA MORAYEF: Yes, and I think that’s really important to remember, because this was also a decision that the prosecution took. Important to remember that the public prosecutor was a Mubarak appointee and has remained in place throughout this entire period. So the default setting under Mubarak was that the police would get away with torture, would get away with enforced disappearance, would get away with beating up protesters again and again, and there would never be real prosecutions. And this is why, when the protests actually happened, one of the first demands of the 18 days in Tahrir and in other squares around Egypt was for accountability, for justice, for a trial, for a break with the past.

And yet, the prosecutors only looked at those six days of Mubarak’s rule. There was no intent to have a broader process of transitional justice that would look at the use of torture as a tool, that would look at the death in custody cases. The reason Khaled Saeed, the torture case from June 2010, became so iconic, and his picture was everywhere in the square, was specifically because he represented the kind of police abuse that was one of the main—the main things that fueled the anger during the protests. So Egypt hasn’t had a process of transitional justice.

And, in fact, the Ministry of Interior continues to behave pretty much as it did under Mubarak. Last November, 45 protesters were killed in Tahrir. In June, we saw excessive use of force and people losing their eyes, because the riot police were shooting rubber pellets at protesters’ heads instead of shooting them at their feet. We’ve seen the same practices continue. We’ve seen torture continue.

And I think this is the real opportunity cost in the sense of this trial. It was a missed opportunity for both civil society and the protest movement to push for real torture prosecutions, for the prosecution to attempt to choose—you know, you don’t have to prosecute every police officer, but you can choose some of the leaders, and in particular Hassan Abdel Rahman, who was the person ordering torture of political detainees. This could have been a trial to break with the abusive practices of the past. And instead, I think—and this is the reason why people are so angry—it’s reaffirmed that the system is still very much in place, and the Ministry of Interior can still protect itself.

AMY GOODMAN: Following Saturday’s verdict, presidential hopeful Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood promised to put Mubarak on trial again.

MOHAMED MORSI: [translated] I will immediately put in place a team made up from the criminal investigations department and from the prosecutor’s office and from experts at the highest level to put forward evidence for the accusations and real proof against those who killed the revolutionaries and against those who corrupted the state and against those who ruined the country and those who smuggled the country’s wealth for decades out of Egypt.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, who’s running for president. Your response, Heba?

HEBA MORAYEF: Well, I think the Muslim Brotherhood realizes at this point that it has very little credibility with the protest movement. On many occasions, for strategic choices on their part, they refused to join certain protests, and in the early months, they refused to condemn the excessive use of force by the Ministry of Interior and definitely refused to condemn any violations on the part of the military. And this is why there’s been so much growing distrust of the Brotherhood by revolutionary activists.

But at this point, I think the response of the Muslim Brotherhood—as early as the afternoon, a few hours after the verdict, they had already started calling for protests in Alexandria’s main square, in Tahrir, and in other cities around Egypt. I think that response is an indication that they realize they can’t quite win against Shafik without getting more support from revolutionaries and that they can, in a sense, use the kind of anger that exists right now against the trial, against Mubarak, against the previous regime, and try and channel that to campaign against Shafik. The question, I think, that remains unanswered is to what extent the Brotherhood feels it needs the votes of revolutionary activists, because if it feels that it can’t—that Morsi can’t win on his own just based on the Islamist votes, then we might see some serious concessions being offered in the next days. But if these protests are really just part of elections campaigning, then it may just be business as usual, and you may see most revolutionary activists choosing to boycott the next round of elections.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to Egyptian presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik, whom Morsi is running against, who served as Mubarak’s final prime minister. He’s vowed not to take the country back to pre-revolution politics.

AHMED SHAFIK: [translated] The Muslim Brotherhood says that I will reproduce the previous regime. But I say to whoever claims this that you do not know Egypt, and you are unaware of the amount of change that took place in Egypt since the 25th of January.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Ahmed Shafik. Heba, your response?

HEBA MORAYEF: Well, I think Ahmed Shafik is also right now trying to pitch to different constituencies. And we’ve seen him attack the Brotherhood very, very enthusiastically over the last few days. We’ve seen him try to distance himself from Hosni Mubarak very early on. But ultimately, his main pitch has been the language of stability: “I will bring back the kind of security that you enjoyed. I will bring back the economic progress we had before.” And people are voting for him because of that. He has also been strongly campaigning against the Muslim Brotherhood and really blatant fear mongering about the Brotherhood, and has, over the last few days, also pitched himself to the more secular and more liberal constituencies in Egypt, talking about the position of women and trying to present himself in that light.

I think the reason that, for some revolutionary activists, we’re hearing calls for boycotts—and it’s impossible to tell at this point how significant that boycott could be—is because Shafik is still unacceptable because of who he is. He was prime minister when thugs, armed thugs on horses and camels, went into that square and beat up protesters. He was prime minister when a lot of the documents of state security investigations, but also other documents to do with corruption, were destroyed and mysteriously disappeared. So people see him as somebody who really tried to protect Mubarak up until the last moment in the Mubarak regime. And I think he can’t really reinvent himself or gain new credibility with those revolutionary forces.

But he can speak to the people who are very worried about the security situation, who are very worried about the economic situation, and who fear the Brotherhood because of all they represent. And also, the Brotherhood obviously hasn’t helped by running especially in the first round, pitching itself in the light of the more conservative Islamist party, to distance themselves from Aboul Fotouh’s campaign at the time, so they were also pitching to the Salafi vote and came up with a number of very conservative statements with regards to the application of sharia.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Heba, the sons, Gamal—

HEBA MORAYEF: But I think, you know, unfortunately, this runoff is going—

AMY GOODMAN: The sons, Gamal and Alaa, who were acquitted—and in fact no one was charged with corruption—could they be retried? And the significance of that, that no one was convicted of corruption?

HEBA MORAYEF: Well, I think it’s shocking to see the quality of the evidence on which the prosecution based its referral to trial of Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, because any first-year law student knows what a statute of limitations is. And I think that’s another of the reasons why there is a lot of anger about the verdict. I mean, Gamal and Alaa will remain in prison—in preventative detention, rather, because there is a new set—there’s a new investigation that is against them that just started a few days before the trial, again giving people the impression that—that people realized that there would be an acquittal for them on these charges. There hasn’t been a serious corruption investigation, basically, or of the involvement of Alaa Mubarak in the NDP’s politics, in how the forged elections were run under the NDP, a lot of the policy decisions that the NDP policies committee was involved in. This hasn’t been investigated yet. And I think part of it is a question of capacity, but more importantly, it’s a question of political will on the part of the prosecution. Until the prosecution really starts digging into the Ministry of Interior’s records, into the corruption records, we won’t see the kind of accountability that Egypt needs to be able to move on.

AMY GOODMAN: Heba Morayef, I want to thank you very much for being with us, Middle East and North Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch, speaking to us from Cairo, Egypt. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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