CAIRO — Ousted Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his former interior minister were sentenced to life in prison Saturday after being convicted of complicity in the killing of protesters during the 2011 revolt that turned once-untouchable despots into defendants.
Mubarak became the first autocrat targeted in the Arab Spring uprisings to face life imprisonment in the country he once ruled. But the acquittal of six senior police officials charged with ordering the killings, as well as the exoneration of Mubarak and his sons of corruption charges, enraged many Egyptians, who took to the streets to decry the outcome as a travesty of justice.
Activists said the verdicts mean that no one has been held directly accountable for killing the nearly 1,000 people who died during the revolt. Mubarak and former interior minister Habib al-Adli were convicted for failing to stop the killings, not for ordering them. “Both will appeal,” said Yusry Abdel Razak, one of Mubarak’s attorneys.
The long-awaited verdicts jolted Egypt’s presidential race, as Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate who will compete in a runoff this month, sought to take advantage of the new groundswell of revolutionary rage to attack his opponent, Mubarak-era prime minister Ahmed Shafiq.
As the sun set in Cairo, thousands of Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square and into the streets of the Mediterranean port of Alexandria and other cities. The volume and vigor of the turnout were startling in a year in which revolutionaries have often appeared deflated and rudderless.
“All of this is a charade, and we don’t accept it,” said Amal Ramsis, 40, as she protested in the square.
Dissatisfaction with the ruling could push revolutionaries who had planned to boycott the runoff election for president into grudging support of Morsi, an uncharismatic conservative Islamist, experts said.
“The Brotherhood might be able to capitalize on this to push the line for revolutionary unity against the regime,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, an Egypt analyst at the Century Foundation. “The anger could push those planning to sit it out to cast a vote for the Brotherhood against the old regime.”
After the verdict was handed down, Mubarak was whisked away on a helicopter to the Tora Prison hospital in suburban Cairo. The former strongman reportedly suffered a heart attack after learning that he would not be returned to the military hospital where he has been held in recent months, according to a medical official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. As the aircraft touched down, Mubarak reportedly wept and refused for several minutes to debark. State media reported he was in stable condition Saturday night in the prison.
The decision marked the first time that Mubarak has entered a prison since his detention in April 2011. During that time, he has been housed at a military hospital.
The three-judge panel that presided over the landmark case cited a statute of limitations in acquitting the former president, his two sons and a business tycoon of corruption charges. Both Alaa Mubarak and Gamal Mubarak will remain in custody on separate charges of stock market fraud.
The judges cited a lack of evidence in acquitting the six senior police officials charged in the killings of demonstrators. During closing statements in February, prosecutors said the Interior Ministry had been uncooperative during the investigation.
Human rights activists said they were most disturbed by the acquittal of Ahmed Ramzy, the head of the riot police at the forefront of street battles with protesters during the revolt that began Jan. 25, 2011. Hossam Bahgat, a prominent rights worker, said the conviction of only the two top officials charged in the case suggested that the country’s military rulers were willing to sacrifice some of their own to preserve the security apparatus.
“This is the loudest message in the verdict,” he said.
Anti-Mubarak protesters initially rejoiced outside the heavily secured courthouse as firecrackers popped in the background. However, as the defendants were taken from the courtroom cage, people in the courtroom broke into angry chants denouncing the acquittals, and a brawl broke out.
“The people want the purification of the judiciary,” some spectators screamed. “Invalid, invalid!”
Mubarak attended the hearing on a stretcher, wearing dark sunglasses. He lay cross-armed, expressionless and motionless inside the black iron cage, as his sons sought to shield their 84-year-old father from cameras inside the courtroom.
Before announcing the verdict, the presiding judge, Ahmed Refaat, described the 2011 revolution as a historic turning point for the nation.
“As the sun rose on January 25 over Egypt, a new era was ushered in,” Refaat said. “A bright day loomed large for the great people of Egypt with new hope they had long yearned for.”
The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement Saturday demanding justice for the slain revolutionaries.
“Who killed the martyrs if the police leaders are innocent?” the statement said. “If the evidence before the judiciary is insufficient, then the fronts responsible for concealing and discarding the evidence should be tried.”
Later, in a news conference, Morsi pledged that if he is elected president, all the defendants will be retried.
Ayman Nour, a renowned opposition figure who was jailed after he ran against Mubarak for the presidency in 2005, responded to the verdict by endorsing Morsi.
“The verdict today was shocking and did not meet legal prediction,” a statement from Nour’s office said.
In Tahrir Square on Saturday night, Ahmad Marzouk, 32, stood with his daughter to protest what he called a “weak” sentencing. He scoffed at the Brotherhood for supporting this protest after ignoring so many others, accusing the venerable Islamist group of opportunism.
“The Brotherhood come to the square when it is convenient for them,” he said. “Now they are trying to buy the votes of the revolutionaries by standing on their side, but if it was not in their best interest, they would have remained as quiet as always.”
Shafiq, who was appointed prime minister by Mubarak during last year’s revolt, issued a statement praising the verdict as proof that “nobody in Egypt is above being held to account.” Shafiq saluted the “martyrs” of the revolt and said the verdict proved that the “reproduction” of Mubarak’s government is impossible.
Many revolutionaries, however, fear that Shafiq, who like Mubarak is a former air force chief, would restore the repressive policies of the old order if elected.
Shafiq’s spokesman, Ahmed Sarhan, accused the Brotherhood of condemning the verdict to propel its candidate to the presidency.
“We believe that this is being manipulated for the sake of the election,” he said.
Three other Arab leaders were toppled in the revolts that swept the region in 2011. Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia in January and was later tried and convicted in absentia.
Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi was killed by a mob in the city of Sirte in October 2011 after rebels aided by a NATO bombing campaign captured the capital. And Ali Abdullah Saleh, the president of Yemen, was forced to resign in February after enormous pressure from Persian Gulf states and the United States.
Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, pointed out that no one, including the head of the riot police, has been held directly responsible for the killing during Egypt’s revolt, and she predicted that popular anger would be widespread.
“I don’t think this will satisfy people,” she said. “It’s a reflection of the fact that this was a very badly investigated case. It should have never gone to trial if they didn’t have enough evidence.”
Special correspondent Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.