The murder trial of Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak is in its early stages but it already took a worrisome swerve in the eyes of his opponents.
Presiding Judge Ahmed Rifaat ruled to deny Egyptians the comfort of seeing their former leader in a cage by ruling that the trial will no longer be aired on state television starting with the next session on September 5, citing “public interest.” He also decided to merge the cases of Mubarak and former Prime Minister Habib el Adly, who is also accused of murder and whose trial has been going on since February.
On the one hand, these rulings could be positive for the plaintiffs. By merging the trials, Rifaat has satisfied a major prosecution demand and acknowledged that both men are allegedly responsible for the same crime – ordering the killing of 850 protesters during the revolution. The lack of cameras might also make the court proceed in a more orderly fashion and guarantee greater protection for the witnesses.
But analysts have found that these decisions could hurt the plaintiffs as well. They remove the highly important element of transparency before all of Egypt and make it easier for Mubarak to slip the noose.
“This is like some hilarious joke – [The government said] ‘we are going to clear the protesters out of Tahrir but in exchange, we’ll show you Mubarak behind bars. This was the unwritten agreement,’” said Tarek Mounir, an Egyptian reporter and activist.
“I mean for god’s sake, they didn’t succeed to act as if they’re doing a free trial for more than two sessions,” he added.
Rifaat did not explain his decision to stop the broadcast but there’s wide speculation that his decision stemmed in part from the behavior of the prosecution lawyers at the trial. They acted rancorous, entered shouting matches with their opponents and made dramatic speeches that looked tailored to the camera. Rifaat called a recess three times because of the lawyers’ intransigence. Some members of the prosecution also wanted the court not to air certain testimonies for the safety of the witnesses. However, most did not call for cameras to be banned entirely.
Though some people in the courtroom applauded when the judge read his decision to stop the broadcast, many Egyptians outside the police academy where the trial was held and across the country expressed their frustration on social media networks.
The trial of an Arab political leader, which may lead to his execution is unprecedented in the region and is a major event in Egypt’s history. The activists and revolutionaries are focused on transparency and accountability and see the camera ban as backsliding into the secretive days of the old regime. People are also concerned about the impartiality of the judge who was appointed by the same president he’s in charge of judging right now. Hassan Mohamed Abdel Fattah who lost his son to a police bullet called it “unfair.” Amnesty International also released a statement calling for transparency.
“One of the most emblematic symbols of government working is a trial,” said Carlos Gonzalez, a lawyer with Diaz, Reus & Targ, a Miami-based law firm. “Seeing it on TV says ‘we have just undergone a revolution.’ The notion of banning cameras is seen as… a lot of the usual.”
Rifaat did grant the prosecution one of its main demands—from now on, Mubarak and El-Adly will be co-defendants. This means that if one of them gets convicted, the other must be convicted as well.
But Gonzalez said that this doesn’t necessarily bode well for people who want to see Mubarak hang or receive a life sentence. With co-defendants, blame can be apportioned unequally. As such, El-Adly can be sacrificed in order for Mubarak to receive a lighter sentence. “It can be a bad thing if the other co-defendant is found to be more culpable,” said Gonzalez.
The effects of Rifaat’s rulings will not be visible until September 5, when the trial resumes. Though the trial will not be aired on state television, select reporters are still allowed inside the courtroom. However, Egyptians against the decision, find it a meager comfort.
“Egyptian media is under control of [the military] – this is about controlling the message. It’s going to be compromised,” said Mounir.