By Bob Duncan
Egyptian ex-president Hosni Mubarak has been found guilty of complicity in the killing of protesters and sentenced to life imprisonment by a court in the capital, Cairo.
The sentence makes Mr. Mubarak, whose surname ironically translates as “Congratulations”, the first former Arab leader to be jailed since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” in 2011.
It was an inglorious end for a leader who rose to power after Islamic extremists assassinated his predecessor Anwar Sadat and then steered the nation through the turmoil that swept the Middle East buffeted by wars, terrorism and religious extremism.
However, the frail 84 year old was acquitted, along with his two sons, Alaa and Garnal Mubarak, on separate charges of corruption, as was Hussein Salem a business tycoon.
Former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly was also found guilty of conspiracy to kill protesters and sentenced to life imprisonment, but four senior government officials were found not guilty of similar charges and two other officials were found not guilty.
The sentences, which may be overturned on appeal, were initially met with celebrations by the huge crowd which had gathered in Cairo’s Tahir Square, and which included relatives of those killed by the regime.
There were loud cracks of fireworks and groups marched jubilantly past the surrounding lines of riot police shouting “Egypt, Egypt” and “God is great”. Some kissed the concrete beneath their feet and kneeled in prayer.
However, once the acquittals became known, the cheering turned quickly to angry shouts as protesters clashed with riot police. Small-scale clashes broke out near the courthouse as youths supporting Egypt’s former leader moved in, throwing stones. Riot police wielding batons tried to break up the fighting.
There were also angry scenes within the courthouse of Cairo’s Police Academy, where the sentences were handed down. Scuffles erupted in front of the bench and angry lawyers chanted “the people want the cleansing of the judiciary”.
Watched by tens of millions on live television, the judge, Ahmed Refaat, declared that neither Mubarak nor any other defendants were responsible for ordering the lethal assault by security forces last January and February that left almost a thousand demonstrators dead, and that Mubarak and al-Adly were only guilty of not using their high political office to stop the bloodshed.
Amnesty International said the ruling had failed to end a culture of impunity for security officials and politicians guilty of human rights abuses, and warned that the wait for genuine justice continued.
Several demonstrations have since been called in various parts of the country.
Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, one of the human rights organisations monitoring the case, said the prosecution had been hampered by withheld evidence and a lack of support from state institutions, and predicted that a retrial was likely.
“We are glad that Mubarak and his police chief did not walk free but extremely disappointed at the acquittal of six security officials and even more at the reason given for the acquittals, which is the lack of evidence linking them with the killing of protesters”, he added.
Since his trial began last August, Mr. Mubarak has been held in the International Medical Centre outside the capital, because his lawyer said he was in poor health. Egyptian state television reported that the former president suffered a “health crisis”, thought to be a heart attack, following the sentencing.
Reports from Tora prison, where other former government figures are now serving jail sentences for corruption, say Mubarak has now been admitted to the hospital there. His sons will continue to be detained there also, despite their acquittal, because they are still to be tried on charges of stock market manipulation.
The first leader toppled during the Arab Spring was Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, who was found guilty in absentia of drug and gun charges in July. Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was killed by rebels in October. Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh received immunity from prosecution after handing over power in November.
Meanwhile, Kofi Annan has warned that nearby Syria is heading for “All-out war”.
The international peace envoy warned that the restive state was slipping into a “sectarian” conflict, while a spokesman for the Syrian opposition has said that Russia, Syria’s long-time ally, had increasingly become part of the problem.
Speaking at an Arab League meeting in Doha, Annan said: “The spectre of an all-out war, with an alarming sectarian dimension, grows by the day.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has reported clashes between protesters and regime troops in Homs and Dera’a, while heavy gunfire is being reported in Douma. The town of Houla, scene of last weekend’s massacre, is also reportedly being shelled.
On Friday, the UN’s human rights chief warned that Syria could descend into all-out civil war unless UN member states demand an independent inquiry into the Houla massacre. In a statement read out to the UN’s human rights council (HRC), Navi Pillay reasserted her belief that President Assad’s regime should be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
She also appealed for the other countries attending the emergency session to rally behind Kofi Annan’s six-point peace plan to avoid “fully-fledged conflict”. “I am appalled by the atrocities committed in Houla,” she said.
Earlier, a draft resolution to be put before the HRC condemned “in the strongest possible terms such an outrageous use of force against the civilian population which constitutes a violation of applicable international law”.
However, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Fayssal al-Hamwi, said the resolution was designed to ignite civil war in the country, dismissing the draft as “full of hate”.
William Hague welcomed the resolution saying that the acts committed by the Syrian regime in Houla “may amount to crimes against humanity and other international crimes”, adding that they “demonstrate a pattern of widespread and systematic attacks against civilian populations”.
“Evidence from the UN supervision mission in Syria and independent witnesses has confirmed that security forces shelled the village of el-Houla and that government militia then went house to house slaughtering entire families without compassion or mercy.
“These atrocities must be investigated, and those responsible must be held to account. A special and independent investigation into el-Houla is essential – including to ensure that evidence is gathered and preserved for future justice processes.
“Britain will support these efforts, and will continue to prepare the ground for a referral of the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court.”
Earlier, amid reports of another mass killing by pro-government militias and increasing pressure for outside intervention, Mr Hague said a military response could not be ruled out. “We are not ruling anything out,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today.
“But a military intervention in Syria, as I have always pointed out, would have to be on a vastly greater scale than was the case in Libya and it would have to enjoy broad international support.
“So we are not at that stage at this point now.”