CAIRO (Reuters) - Hosni Mubarak, toppled by an uprising last year after 30 years ruling Egypt, was sentenced to life imprisonment 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 afterwards in a nation already on edge before a deciding presidential vote in two weeks. Some wanted Mubarak executed, others feared the judge’s ruling exposed weaknesses in the case that could let the ex-military strongman off on appeal.
Wearing dark glasses, the 84-year-old Mubarak was wheeled into a courtroom cage on a hospital stretcher to join co-defendants including his two sons Alaa and Gamal, former Interior Minister Habib al-Adli and six security officials.
Addressing the hushed courtroom, Judge Ahmed Refaat said: “The court has ordered a punishment for Hosni Mubarak of life in prison based on charges of participating in crimes of killing and attempted killing.”
Propped up on the stretcher and stony-faced during the verdict, the only words the former air force commander uttered were to acknowledge to the judge over a microphone that he was present before the ruling was read out. Afterwards, he was whisked off by helicopter to a prison hospital.
His two sons, businessman Alaa, and Gamal, a former banker was once seen as being groomed for president before his father was toppled on February 11, 2011, had corruption charges quashed, but stay in jail over another case referred to court last week.
Refaat sentenced Adli, whose police force was hated for the brutal tactics used against the revolt, to life in prison. About 850 people were killed in the 18-day uprising against Mubarak.
But the judge acquitted the senior security officials for lack of evidence, a decision that worried lawyers for victims’ families who said that could help Mubarak win any appeal.
Businessman and Mubarak ally Hussein Salem, being tried in absentia, was also acquitted of corruption charges.
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.
State television said Mubarak suffered a “health crisis” when he was flown to Cairo’s Tora prison, where he was admitted to a hospital facility. Mubarak had been held at a luxurious military-run hospital during the 10-month trial.
A medical source said Mubarak argued with those around him when he landed at Tora, refusing to leave the aircraft. Mubarak always appeared in court sessions on a stretcher but his ailment has not been defined.
Long feted by Arab leaders and his U.S. and other Western allies as a lynchpin politician who offered stability in a turbulent region, Mubarak’s ousting has helped redraw the Middle East’s political map and let Islamists he once repressed sweep up parliamentary seats in the Arab world’s most populous state.
The Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s biggest Islamist group, is now fielding one of the two challengers in a fraught run-off vote for the presidency against Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, who like his former boss once led the air force.
Unlike elections in Mubarak’s time, that were routinely rigged and the outcome guaranteed, no one can be sure who will emerge victor in the June 16 and 17 run-off that has polarized the nation, leaving many worrying both about Islamist rule and the alternative of handing power back to a former military man.
Refaat opened proceedings by hailing Egyptians for removing the only leader many of them had known. Mubarak came to power in 1981 after his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated by Islamists angry at Egypt’s 1979 peace deal with Israel.
“The people of Egypt woke on Tuesday, January 25, 2011, to a new dawn, hoping that they would be able to breathe fresh air ... after 30 years of deep, deep, deep darkness,” he said, referring to the day the uprising erupted.
Yet many Egyptians are still waiting for the light - the chaos that erupted in court after the ruling typifying a messy political transition that has been led by the military. Generals say they will hand over power to a new president by July 1.
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 wanted, many saw the trial that acquitted top security officials as showing how much of Mubarak’s old order was still in place.
Protesters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, focus for the uprising that drove Mubarak out. In Alexandria, demonstrators chanted: “We are done with talk, we want an execution!”
Al Jazeera reported that Mubarak would lodge an appeal. His lawyers could not be reached immediately for comment.
Yet some Egyptians said Mubarak’s sentencing was enough, even if they were unhappy security officials were off the hook.
“I think the verdict on Mubarak is fair, he is over 80 years old and a life in prison verdict is a hard one, as it means he will certainly spend all his remaining years in jail,” said Ahmed Raouf, 30, who works at a private Cairo computer firm.
Brotherhood presidential candidate Mohamed Mursi promised in a news conference he would deliver “retribution for the martyrs” and would dig up evidence to try those responsible for killings.
“The blood of the martyrs will keep boiling in my veins,” he said, painting himself as the choice for revolutionaries and those seeking change in the presidential race.
Ahmed Shafiq, appointed premier in the last days of Mubarak’s rule and who calls the ex-president a role model, said on his Facebook page the trial showed no one was above the law.
“This verdict brings Egypt back to its leading regional role as the country witnesses the first condemnation of an Arab pharaoh who ruled for 30 years,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah from the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.
But he said the verdict would be a political football in the election. He said Mursi wanted to show he was the only one who could reform the system and Shafiq would seek to prove that this showed the judiciary could deliver a tough sentence, despite criticism of the ruling by protesters.
Lawyers acting for the families of victims said the acquittal of the six security officials showed the weakness of the prosecution case. They said the sentence was designed to appease public anger, but could be overturned at appeal.
“Regarding accusations against the police leadership, the court is of the opinion that none of the actors who committed the crimes of murder were caught during or after the events, so there is no direct evidence for the charges,” the judge said.
Charges against the six included complicity in killing protesters and failing to prevent damage to public property.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said the ruling “sends a powerful message to Egypt’s future leaders that they are not above the law”. But it said the acquittals suggested a prosecution failure to fully investigate killings of protesters.
Few Egyptians had expected Mubarak to be put to death, although protesters have often hung his effigy from lamp posts.
Hanafi el-Sayed, whose 27-year-old son was killed early in the uprising, travelled from Alexandria for the trial.
“I want nothing less than the death penalty for Mubarak. Anything less and we will not be silent and the revolution will break out again,” he said shortly before the verdict.
Additional reporting by Yasmine, Saleh, Tom Perry, Patrick Werr and Marwa Awad; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alistair Lyon and Ralph Gowling