CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Wednesday acquitted 24 loyalists of ousted President Hosni Mubarak who had been accused of organizing one of the most dramatic attacks on protesters during last year's uprising, the "Camel Battle," in which assailants on horses and camels charged into crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square.
The 24 were found innocent on charges of manslaughter and attempted murder. The defendants included some of the biggest names of Mubarak's regime, including the former parliament speaker and the head of the now-dissolved ruling party, along with government ministers and businessmen. A 25th defendant died during the course of the trial.
The Feb. 2, 2011 assault left nearly a dozen people killed and was a major turning point in the 18-day wave of protests that led to Mubarak's downfall.
It came a day after Mubarak spoke on national television, saying he would eventually step down. The emotional speech won him sympathy and drained the numbers of protesters in a days-long sit-in in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising.
But then the attack came. A crowd of Mubarak supporters waded into the young activists at the sit-in. Amid the melee, a number of men on horses and camels swept in, trying to beat and trample protesters. The assault, widely aired on TV, turned into an all-out battle that lasted two days, with more protesters flooding into the square to defend it in clashes that saw the two sides pelting each other with stones, bricks and firebombs. In the end, the Mubarak supporters were driven away.
The attack and the images of young protesters fighting back reversed sympathies and galvanized the uprising. Many Egyptians who were sitting on the fence saw it as a desperate last ditch attempt to crush the revolt, and many accused Mubarak officials and pro-regime businessmen of paying thugs to carry out the attack. The wave of protests grew and on Feb. 11, 2011, Mubarak was forced out.
Judge Mustafa Abdullah said the defendants were acquitted because the testimony of the witnesses was weak and "driven by grudges between witnesses and the defendants due to partisan differences."
Abdullah also said some of the witnesses had criminal records, including one who had a record of perjury. Despite the list of known victims, the judge said he trusted the testimony of a general who was a member of the council that ruled Egypt during the transition, who said that no one was killed in the square during the battle.
The defendants' lawyers had asked for an acquittal because they said there was not enough evidence incriminating their clients. An official in the prosecutor general's office said an attorney has been commissioned to review the reasons for the verdict, a sign it will likely appeal.
A senior figure in the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed el-Beltagi, said in comments published on its party's online newspaper that the acquittal is a "farce" and called on Egypt's new president, the Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi to intervene to retry the defendants.
Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer whose center was involved in the case, said some evidence presented to the court was not taken into consideration and other evidence was tampered with. Some witnesses in the case changed their testimony from what they had given earlier to investigators, Eid said, blaming pressure from still powerful ex-regime loyalists.
Activists are planning a large rally on Friday criticizing Morsi's 3-month-old rule, and the acquittals of some of the most hated figures of Mubarak's regime are likely to fuel calls for justice.
Nearly 1,000 protesters were killed in the uprising against Mubarak, mostly during clashes with security forces in the early days of the protests, which began on Jan. 25, 2011. But almost none of the officials and policemen brought to trial for the deaths have been found guilty. Most were released for lack of evidence and poor investigation. Mubarak was sentenced to life in prison for failing to stop the violence.
Lawyers and activists have questioned the impartiality of the investigations into the killings, which were conducted in the days following the uprising by Mubarak-era officials who still held their posts and by police officers embittered by the protests. The multiple acquittals have fueled calls for reforming the judiciary, which is still made up of judges appointed under Mubarak.
Morsi has promised to hold new trials on new evidence and appointed a new fact-finding mission to investigate the deaths of protests.
Ahmed Ragheb, a human rights lawyer who is participating in the fact-finding mission, said Wednesday's verdict was not a surprise, considering numerous flaws in the procedures leading up to the trial and reported pressures on witnesses and investigating judges from ex-regime officials.
"The acquittal doesn't mean this didn't happen or that so and so did not commit the crime. It means the evidence is not enough," he said. "This is the case in most of the other trials concerning the killing of protesters, because the police, who are accused in the killings, are the ones collecting evidence."
Ragheb said the fact-finding mission has collected new evidence, but that anything short of an overhaul of the judicial system would not mete out justice for the protesters.
"The current judicial system is not qualified to try the state. It is part of it," he said. "We need a new justice system that can protect the revolution," and implement a system of transitional justice to bring former regime officials to trial.
Chief among the defendants in the "Camel Battle" trial was Safwat el-Sherif, one of Mubarak's most trusted aids and secretary-general of Mubarak's National Democratic Party, and Fathi Sorour, who served for decades as speaker of parliament.
Last year, a government-appointed commission investigating the Feb. 2 events released findings, based on testimony from 87 witnesses. The commission said el-Sherif masterminded the attack, making phone calls to ruling party lawmakers and their supporters and telling them to "curb anti-Mubarak protests in Tahrir Square with violence."
"The eyewitnesses said that there was a specific assignment to clear the square by any means," the report said.
Sorour paid thugs anywhere from 50 to 500 Egyptian pounds ($9 to $90) and provided them with meals and drugs to attack the crowd, the commission said.
Witnesses told the investigators they saw ruling party members among the assailants, inciting them against the protesters, and even some on the camels and horses, the report said. "Snipers also took positions on rooftops of residential buildings overlooking the square and they opened fire at protesters."