Thursday, August 25, 2011

Egypt Puts Mubarak On Trial, Transfixing Arab World

Los Angeles Times
Egypt puts Mubarak on trial, transfixing Arab world

August 3, 2011

The prosecutor in the trial of Egypt's ousted leader Hosni Mubarak accused the former president in court on Wednesday of involvement in the killing of protesters and allowing his interior minister to use live ammunition against them.

From Reuters

Egypt's Hosni Mubarak was wheeled into a courtroom cage in a hospital bed on Wednesday to face trial for killing protesters -- an image that thrilled those who overthrew him and must have chilled other Arab autocrats facing popular uprisings.

If convicted, Mubarak could face the death penalty.

Judge Ahmed Refaat called for quiet as he opened the trial of the former president, his two sons Alaa and Gamal, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six senior ex-officers.

A business executive and Mubarak confidant, Hussein Salem, is being tried in absentia.

"We need people to keep order and stay seated in order for us to perform our job and for justice to take its course," the judge said at the start of the trial. "All of us will face God with sound hearts and this is what we hope. May God help us."

Mubarak, 83, was toppled in February after 18 tumultuous days of popular protest. A military council took over, promising a transition to democracy -- a process far from complete.

Lawyers for Adli asked for the head of the council, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and other political, military and security officials to be summoned as witnesses in the trial, shortly before the judge called a recess.

Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, in the white outfits of defendants, stood next to their father in the iron cage customarily used in criminal trials in Egypt.

Gamal, once viewed as being groomed for the presidency, leaned over to speak to his father, who had a stand with a drip beside him. Alaa, a businessman, seemed to be holding a Koran.

Charges range from conspiring to kill protesters to abusing office to amass wealth.

The trial, televised around the world, transfixed Egyptians and other Arabs, most of whom have spent their lives under authoritarian systems shaken by this year's wave of unrest.

"I'm so happy. I feel tomorrow will be better and that the next president knows what could happen to him if he goes against his people," Ahmed Amer, 30, a water utility employee, said outside the Cairo courtroom, where crowds had gathered.

They could watch proceedings on a giant screen erected outside. Pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters faced off, some hurling stones. Hundreds of police tried to calm them down.

At a small pro-Mubarak rally, people chanted: "Oh Mubarak, hold your head high" and "We will demolish the prison and burn it down, if Hosni Mubarak is sentenced."

Counter-chants of "Raise your voice, freedom will not die," rose from nearby group hostile to Mubarak.

Speculation had swirled before the trial about whether the frail 83-year-old, hospitalized in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh since April, would turn up in the Cairo court.

Ahmed Farghali, 24, among protesters who had gathered outside the Sharm el-Sheikh before Mubarak was flown to Cairo, said he could not believe he would see the president locked in a cage. "It was beyond my wildest dreams," he said.

For some of his opponents, Mubarak's appearance smacked of political theater to gain sympathy.

"Why is he on a stretcher? Is he handicapped? This is a playing on people's emotions so we can all start crying over an old man," Mohamed Naguib, 32, said in Sharm el-Sheikh, where some chanted: "The people want the execution of the killer."

Mubarak is the first Arab leader to stand trial in person since popular uprisings swept the region this year.

Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the first Arab leader to be ousted in the Arab Spring, was tried and sentenced to jail in absentia. He fled to Saudi Arabia. Iraq's Saddam Hussein was ousted by U.S.-led forces, then tried and hanged.

Mubarak was on trial with his two sons Gamal, a banker-turned-politician once seen as being groomed for the top office, and Alaa, who had business interests, as well as former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six senior officers.

Charges range from conspiring in the killing of protesters to abusing power to amass wealth.

Security was tightened in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Police and military officers in riot gear were deployed there, with dozens of police trucks and a few army armored personnel vehicles.

Protesters had camped out in Tahrir for three weeks in July seeking a swifter trial for Mubarak and other reforms. They feared the ruling generals would use Mubarak's illness as a ploy to avoid publicly humiliating the war veteran and ex-president who ran Egypt for 30 years until Feb. 11.

In his only public comments since quitting, Mubarak vowed in April to clear himself and his family from accusations of corruption. Few Egyptians believed they would see him in court.

"If you feel sympathy for any dictator broken and standing in a cage, remember him when he was unjust on the throne," Marian wrote on Twitter, using the website that became a tool in rallying the masses during the 18-day uprising against him.

The defendants were caged in a hall that can seat hundreds of people in the Police Academy, where Mubarak had praised the police two days before Egypt's revolt erupted on Jan. 25.

Police used live ammunition, rubber bullets and teargas on protesters in Cairo and other cities. In Suez, an effigy of Mubarak hangs from a lamp-post near the police station that was gutted by fire during street battles that raged there.

Egyptians blame Mubarak for economic policies they say filled the pockets of the rich while many of the nation's 80 million people scrabbled in squalor to feed their families. They are also angry at his repression of any opposition.

Yet some are reluctant to see a man who was a bomber pilot and then leader of the air force in the 1973 war with Israel put in the dock. Others are simply tired of the disruption protests have cause and want to return to their daily lives.

Activist and director Mohamed Diab wrote on Twitter that the trial was "likely to cause a big rift, just like after his second speech. Imagine Mubarak with white hair, weeping and collapsing in court".

Mubarak, who dyed his hair as he aged in office, had won over some Egyptians with his final speeches that focused on what he described as a lifetime of service. Others were angered by what they saw as his paternalistic and patronizing style.

When the army finally stepped in to take control and he was flown off to internal exile in Sharm el-Sheikh, the streets of the capital and other cities erupted into cheers.

*Photo: Jim Young / Reuters

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