The high-profile trial against Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak took a surprise turn this week, underscoring the challenge of achieving swift justice for Egypt – and heightening concerns about the strength of the state's hastily prepared case.
The former president and six of his top security chiefs are charged with ordering police to open fire on the protesters during the uprising that ousted him and left more than 800 dead – many from gunshot wounds. When Mr. Mubarak's trial reconvened Monday after a three-week break, prosecutors called key witnesses to say who gave orders to fire live ammunition into the crowds earlier this year.
Instead, at least four of the witnesses for the prosecution reversed what they had earlier told investigators, saying that they were unaware of any orders to use deadly force, or that the police were only armed with non-lethal weapons.
The testimony embarrassed the prosecution and fulfilled the warnings of rights advocates and transitional justice experts that holding a quick trial, prosecuted by officials who are former members of Mubarak’s regime, may not yield real justice that will satisfy Egyptians and enable Egypt to move past the Mubarak era.
“Unfortunately, this assures me that what we said before is true: that the investigations were not serious and were not accurate,” says Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer who is representing some of the victims' family members. “We think there will be a conviction, but we hope that the conviction will be based on serious investigations and on the crimes that Mubarak committed, and not because of the pressure of the people.”
But given the way the trial is progressing, “We’re not optimistic,” he says.
One witness briefly detained for perjury
Court prosecutors today charged police Capt. Mohamed Abdel-Hakim with perjury for giving testimony that contradicted what he had earlier told investigators, according to the Associated Press, which was represented at the hearing.
On the stand Monday he denied that that riot police were given live ammunition, but in his earlier affidavit to prosecutors, he said that he gave each member of his force hundreds of live bullets.
Family members of the victims and their lawyers welcomed Mr. Abdel-Hakim's detention, but he was released by the end of the day and other witnesses who apparently changed their testimony were not detained or charged.
Mr. Eid blames the prosecution for not preparing a watertight case. One of the problems, he says, is that some of the witnesses should be defendants in the case. Were they in the defendants’ cage instead of the witness stand, there would be more motivation for them to tell the truth so that they could clear their own record.
Monday’s hearing was the first since the judge, Ahmed Refaat, banned live television broadcast of the hearings. As the session was adjourned Wednesday, Mr. Refaat announced that Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi, the military general who was Mubarak’s defense minister and is now defacto leader of Egypt until new elections, will be summoned to testify Sunday in a session closed to the press.
Army Chief of Staff Sami Enan will testify Monday, to be followed by other key security figures also testifying in closed sessions, including former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. According to Reuters, the judge said the sessions will be closed for “national security reasons.”