CAIRO – Former President Hosni Mubarak got a life sentence Saturday for failing to stop the killing of protesters during Egypt's uprising. But he and his sons were cleared of corruption charges, setting off protests for greater accountability for 30 years of abuses under the old regime.
By nightfall, a large crowd of up to 10,000 was back in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the uprising, to vent anger over the acquittals. Similar protests went on in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria and Suez on the Red Sea.
"Justice was not served," said Ramadan Ahmed, whose son was killed on Jan. 28, the bloodiest day of last year's uprising. "This is a sham," he said outside the courthouse.
Protesters chanted: "A farce, a farce, this trial is a farce" and "The people want execution of the murderer."
The case against Mubarak, his sons, and top aides was very limited in scope, focusing only on the uprising's first few days and two narrow corruption cases. It was never going to provide a full accountability of wrongdoing under Mubarak's three decades of authoritarian rule enforced by a brutal police force and a coterie of businessmen linked to the regime who amassed wealth while nearly half of Egypt's estimated 85 million people lived in poverty.
Mubarak, 84, and his ex-security chief Habib el-Adly were both convicted of complicity in the killings of some 900 protesters and received life sentences. Six top police commanders were acquitted of the same charge with chief Judge Ahmed Rifaat saying there was a lack of concrete evidence.
That absolved the only other representatives of Mubarak's hated security forces aside from el-Adly. It was a stark reminder that though the head has been removed, the body of the reviled security apparatus is largely untouched by genuine reform or purges since Mubarak was ousted 15 months ago.
Many of the senior security officials in charge during the uprising and the Mubarak regime continue to go to work every day at their old jobs.
In many ways, the old system remains in place and the clearest example of that is a key regime figure — Mubarak's longtime friend and last prime minister Ahmed Shafiq — is one of two candidates going to the presidential runoff set for June 16-17.
The generals who took over from Mubarak have not shown a will for vigorously prosecuting the old regime. That is something that neither Shafiq and challenger Mohammed Morsi may have the political will or the muscle to change when one is elected president.
Shafiq last week declared himself an admirer of the uprising, calling it a "religious revolution" and pledged there would be no turning of the clock while he is at the helm. On Saturday, he said the verdict showed that no on was above the law in today's Egypt.
Morsi of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood quickly tried to capitalize on the anger over the acquittals, vowing in a news conference that, if elected, he would retry Mubarak along with former regime officials suspected of involvement in killing protesters.
"Egypt and its revolutionary sons will continue their revolution. This revolution will not stop," he said.
The case against Mubarak, his sons, ex-security chief and six of his top aides was very limited in scope, focusing only on the uprising's first few days and two narrow corruption cases. It was never going to provide a full accountability of wrongdoing under Mubarak's three-decades of authoritarian rule enforced by a brutal police force and a coterie of businessmen linked to the regime who amassed wealth while nearly half of Egypt's estimated 85 millions lived in poverty.
Mubarak and his two sons were acquitted of corruption charges, along with family friend Hussein Salem, who is on the run. The corruption charges were related to the purchase by the Mubaraks of five villas built by Salem at a fraction of their price and Mubarak's decree to allow a Salem company to export natural gas to Israel. Rifaat cited a 10-year statute of limitations that had lapsed on the case of the villas.
The sons — one-time heir apparent Gamal and wealthy businessman Alaa — will not be freed because they are awaiting trial on charges of insider trading. They have been held in custody in Torah prison, the same jail where Mubarak was flown after the sentencing.
The charges related to killing protesters carried a possible death sentence that the judge chose not to impose, opting instead to send Mubarak to prison for the rest of his life.
After the sentencing, Mubarak suffered a "health crisis" on a helicopter flight to a Cairo prison hospital, according to security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media. One state media report said it was a heart attack, but that could not immediately be confirmed.
The officials said Mubarak cried in protest and resisted leaving the helicopter that took him to a prison hospital for the first time since he was detained in April 2011. They said the former leader insisted he be flown to the military hospital on the outskirts of Cairo where he was held in a luxury suite during the trial. Mubarak finally left the chopper and moved to the prison hospital more than two hours after the helicopter landed there.
Earlier, a bedridden Mubarak sat stone-faced and frowning in the courtroom's metal defendants' cage while Rifaat read out the conviction and sentence against him, showing no emotion with his eyes concealed by dark sunglasses. His sons Gamal and Alaa looked nervous but also did not react to either the conviction of their father or their own acquittals.
Rifaat opened the session with an indictment of Mubarak's regime that expressed deep sympathy for the uprising 15 months ago.
"The people released a collective sigh of relief after a nightmare that did not, as is customary, last for a night, but for almost 30 black, black, black years — darkness that resembled a winter night," he said.
"They did not seek a luxurious life or to sit atop the world, but asked their politicians, rulers who sat on the throne of opulence, wealth and power to give them bread and clear water to satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst and to be in a home that shelters their families and the sons of the nation far from the rotten slums," he said.
"They were chanting 'peaceful, peaceful' with their mouths while their stomachs were empty and their strength was failing. ... They screamed ... 'rescue us and pull us from the torture of poverty and humiliation.'"
Rifaat criticized the prosecution's case, saying it lacked evidence and that there was nothing in what has been presented to the court that proved that the protesters were killed by the police. Because those who pulled the trigger have not been arrested, he added, he could not convict any of the top police officers of complicity in the killing of the protesters.
The question of who ordered the killings of protesters was left unanswered.
The prosecution had complained during the trial that it did not receive any help from the Interior Ministry in its preparation for the case and, in some cases, prosecutors were met with obstruction.
One of the uprising's key pro-democracy groups, April 6, rejected the acquittals, saying Rifaat at once paid homage to the protesters and ignored the grief of the families of those killed by acquitting the top police commanders.
"We will continue to cleanse Egypt from corruption," the group said.
Most of the several hundred who attended the court session represented all branches of Mubarak's police state — police conscripts in plainclothes, uniformed policemen ranging from lieutenants in their early 20s to graying generals, and mysterious looking men in business suits with two-way-radios treated with reverence by their uniformed colleagues.
Outside the courtroom — a lecture hall in a police academy on the outskirts of Cairo that once bore Mubarak's name — one man fell to his knees and prostrated himself in prayer on the pavement while others danced, pumped fists in the air and shot off fireworks.
But that scene soon descended into tensions and scuffles, as thousands of riot police in helmets and shields held the restive, mostly anti-Mubarak crowd back behind a cordon protecting the court. At least 60 people were injured, state TV reported.
Angered by the acquittals, lawyers for the victims' families broke out chanting inside the courtroom as soon as Rifaat finished reading the verdict.
"The people want to cleanse the judiciary," they chanted. Some raised banners that read: "God's verdict is execution," while others screamed "illegal!"
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch called the verdict a "landmark conviction" but criticized the prosecution for failing to fully investigate the case.
Maha Youssef, a legal expert from the Nadim Center in Cairo, said the judge's verdict should be the basis of a successful appeal to throw out the convictions.
"It's a completely politicized verdict that is meant to calm the masses. The essence of a ruling by a criminal court judge is not in the papers of the case but in his own personal conviction as someone who lives among the people and know what goes on in his society."
Associated Press correspondents Maggie Michael, Aya Batrawy and Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report.