By Maggie Fick
CAIRO (Reuters) - Deposed former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was sentenced on Wednesday to three years in prison for embezzling millions in public funds for lavish renovations to family properties.
The verdict may please some Egyptians who lived through three decades of autocracy under Mubarak before a 2011 uprising toppled him. But business executives still loyal to him remain influential and rights groups say the abusive security practices of his era remain alive and well today with another former military man set to win a presidential election next week.
Mubarak's two sons were sentenced to four years in jail on the same charges of stealing state funds that had been earmarked for the renovation of presidential palaces but were instead diverted to sprucing up family residences.
The Cairo court also fined Mubarak and his sons 21.197 million Egyptian pounds ($2.98 million) and ordered them to repay about 125 million Egyptian pounds of funds they were accused of siphoning off.
Mubarak has been under house arrest at a military hospital since August pending retrial in a case of complicity in killings protesters during the 2011 revolt. He is further accused in two other cases of corruption that have yet to reach court.
"He (Mubarak) should have treated people close and far from him equally," said Judge Osama Shaheen as the 86-year-old fallen leader watched from a cage flanked by sons Gamal and Alaa. "Instead of abiding by the constitution and laws, he gave himself and his sons the freedom to take from public funds whatever they wanted to without oversight and without regard."
Mubarak spent 23 months in jail from the uprising until August 2013, when he was transferred to house arrest. It was not immediately clear how much of that time served would be applied against Wednesday's sentence, but judicial sources told Reuters that they did not expect Mubarak to serve the entire three years as punishment for the corruption charges.
They said his sons, who have already done three years in jail, will also probably not serve their complete sentences. Four other defendants were acquitted.
Mubarak's former military intelligence boss, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is poised to be elected president next week in a vote that could boost the legitimacy of a military-backed government.
Since ex-army chief Sisi toppled elected Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July in the face of mass unrest over his rule, courts have meted out tough sentences primarily on members of Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood and secular activists.
Wednesday's Mubarak ruling was for a financial crime, not a criminal one. However, many prominent activists have recently been given harsher sentences for street protests than Mubarak received for embezzling millions while serving as president. Senior members of the Brotherhood, including the spiritual guide of the Islamist movement, have been sentenced to death.
A court in the Nile Delta province of Mansoura sentenced 155 Brotherhood supporters, some of them students, to jail terms on Wednesday, giving 54 of them life sentences. The case was related to violence after Mursi's ouster, and charges included membership in a banned group and instigating violence.
Police fired tear gas at demonstrators chanting against the verdict outside the Mansoura court. In Alexandria, police also used tear gas against students protesting at its university, some of them over a jail term imposed on a fellow student.
Reacting to the Mubarak verdict on Twitter, some activists compared the sentence for him and his sons to a Tuesday ruling against Mahienour el-Masri, a young revolutionary activist given two years in jail for protesting without a permit.
The judiciary is now regarded by critics as part of a state crackdown against all dissent to the army-backed government. Indeed, court decisions have been a mirror of the state's mood at pivotal moments during Egypt's turbulent period since 2011.
Legal challenges against wealthy Mubarak-era officials and business associates were brought after the uprising and some were sentenced before and during Mursi's year in power. But since Mursi's fall, the judiciary's focus seems to have shifted to cases against Islamists and secular, liberal activists.
Some of the cases against businessmen who profited from the Mubarak system have been dropped, while high-profile figures like Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, have been acquitted on corruption charges.
Leaders of Mubarak's former ruling party were banned last month from running in any coming elections, but the court order did not list any names, drawing complaints that a lack of clarity could blunt the move's impact.
Sons Alaa and Gamal, who was once widely tipped as Mubarak's successor, became wealthy businessmen during his presidency as part of a "crony capitalism" patronage network that enriched an elite few while tens of millions lived in poverty.
The website of state newspaper Al-Ahram reported that the court had ordered Mubarak transferred to Tora Prison, where his sons are jailed. His health may mean that he will be held at the prison's hospital.
($1 = 7.1167 Egyptian Pounds)
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba, Mahmoud Mourad and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Michael Georgy and Mark Heinrich)