WASHINGTON — A Cairo criminal court sentenced toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to three years in prison for stealing roughly $17 million from government coffers for the upkeep his presidential palaces.
Mubarak’s sons, Alaa and Gamal, who wore white prison uniforms as they stood behind the wheelchair-bound exiled president, received four years sentences.
The verdict, which was supposed to signal a judiciary committed to holding the former dictator and his family accountable for abusing their power, instead was largely met with a shrug across much of Egypt. Many assume the conviction will be overturned on appeal, just like his 2012 death sentence for the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the 2011 uprising that led to his resignation.
In the short term, however, the verdict allows Egypt’s presumed next president, now retired Gen. Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, to dodge the controversy that would be kicked up if the 86-year-old Mubarak were released. The two-day presidential balloting that el-Sissi is expected to dominate take place Sunday and Monday.
The role of Egypt’s courts already are controversial. More than any other Egyptian institution, except perhaps the military, the courts have proven critical to attacking the democratic reforms that Mubarak’s ouster were supposed to usher in. Justice for the masses has not been their hallmark.
For example, Mubarak’s sentence for corruption is the same as the one handed down in December to activist Ahmed Maher, the former leader of the April 6 Youth Movement. Maher’s crime? Calling for protests against government abuse. Maher is serving that sentence now.
Seventeen Americans received as much as a two-year sentence nearly a year ago for illegally operating democracy-promoting non-profit organizations known generally as NGOs.
Four al Jazeera journalists, including a dual Canadian-Egyptian national and an Australian, have been detained since December in a case that accuses them of working with the Muslim Brotherhood to falsify news reports and besmirch Egypt’s image.
Robert Becker, the only American to stay in Egypt through the NGO trial, received a two-year felony sentence and left the country. Asked to respond to Mubarak’s sentence, he noted Tuesday that the Egyptian court decisions largely have been attacks on the key pillars of democracy _ freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of speech. Maher’s case was an attack on assembly, the NGO case was an attack on association and the ongoing case against the al Jazeera staffers.
“If you protest, you get the same sentence as the guy who stole $17 million?” Becker asked.
To be sure, government officials repeatedly stress that the courts are independent from Egypt’s volatile political situation and for that reason they cannot speak out against controversial rulings, like a Minya judge’s decision to sentence 529 people to death for the killing of a police office after not hearing any evidence. But the pattern of the verdicts and the silence of leaders suggest acquiesence by the Egyptian government.
“I listen to these government officials talk about independence of the judiciary, as they did in my case, and it is simply not true,” Becker said. “They are messaging. They have vendettas. They have political agendas.”
Mubarak was technically a free man before Tuesday’s hearing but had been believed to be staying at a military hospital. His lawyer has said he will appeal the sentence. In addition to the verdict, Mubarak and his sons were fined $3 million and ordered to reimburse the state for the stolen $17 million.
Mubarak also faces a retrial for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians killed in the 2011 uprising.