Mubarak vs. a Dissenting Judiciary

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By Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 28, 2006

CAIRO, April 27 -- Thousands of police surrounded the stately square building on Abdel Khaleq Tharwat Street downtown Thursday, while up on the balcony a group of bespectacled judges stood in protest, cellphones trilling in their hands.

The place was the Judges Club, a palatial gathering spot for jurists that is outfitted with giant chandeliers and gilt-framed mirrors. This week, it was the scene of sit-ins against the 25-year rule of President Hosni Mubarak.

The police sealed off the Judges Club as well as the High Court building where two magistrates are being prosecuted for denouncing fraud in a series of elections last year. The show of force was impressive: The number of black-clad, helmeted officers on the street was far larger than during a series of small anti-Mubarak demonstrations last year. Several demonstrators who dared brave the massive cordon were hustled into detention.

Abdel Khaleq Tharwat Street is the latest battleground in the government's campaign against pro-democracy dissidents. The targets this time are judges who are battling to free the bench from what they say is Mubarak's control.

For the judges, Exhibit A of government interference and harassment is the case of the two magistrates, Hesham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekky.

The two men appeared at a hearing Thursday in which they faced disciplinary charges of insulting the judiciary for saying that fellow judges, handpicked by the government to monitor the elections, failed to stop or even denounce vote-rigging. They had set up an independent committee to observe the elections and take complaints.

The court session Thursday was brief, and the magistrates were ordered to appear again May 11. They face being removed from the judiciary.

"The government wants to block the independence of the judiciary," said Nasser Amin, a human rights activist who promotes judicial reform. "Judges are speaking out against arbitrary laws and repression of individuals, and so the authorities feel they must stop them."

Many Egyptians regard judges as a potential counterbalance to the near-absolute presidential powers in Egypt, Amin said.

On Wednesday evening, police broke up a demonstration that had gone on for nine days across from the Judges Club. They hauled off protesters who were chanting, "God grant the judges strength to resist" and "Down with Hosni Mubarak."

At one point, a one-legged man on crutches charged the police, yelling, "Away with the tyrant!" He lost his grip on the crutches but nonetheless twirled around and around shouting epithets.

Since the parliamentary elections last year that Mubarak's party won handily, his government has taken the offensive against some of its harshest critics and political rivals.

Though under pressure from the United States to democratize, the government imprisoned Ayman Nour, the distant second-place finisher in the presidential vote last year, on charges of falsifying official documents. Two journalists have been jailed for "defaming" government officials. On Thursday, a reporter from al-Jazeera television who was working in Dahab, the scene of bombings Monday that killed at least 18 civilians, was detained for broadcasting "false information likely to harm the country's reputation."

The government has renewed roundups of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, a formally banned Islamic group that has become the only large, well-organized political opposition in Egypt. Mubarak postponed municipal elections for two years, a move that opposition activists said was designed to head off Brotherhood candidacies.

The president also has hinted that he would extend emergency laws in place since 1981 that curb free speech and political activities.

Judges resisted government requests to supervise the recent elections, as required by law. Dissenting magistrates, asserting that the eventual observers were handpicked and biased, issued a report that was publicized on pan-Arab television.

"We're insisting that the elections were flawed. The government can't stand that because people will believe us and not them," said Bastawisi, a 29-year court veteran and currently an appeals court judge.

This was not the first time Bastawisi has participated in an electoral protest. In 1985, he and other judges condemned fraud, without effect. Last year, he said, some judges were complicit in the fraud -- statements of the sort that have landed him in court. "I don't care," he said in an interview. "At this point, cooperating with the state is a crime."

Bastawisi noted that the parliamentary elections featured police blockades of polling stations and that 11 people who tried to break through the cordons were killed. "The people responsible for this should be put on trial. Instead, we are attacked."


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