CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's highest appeals court on Wednesday upheld the acquittals of 24 loyalists of Hosni Mubarak who were tried for having organized a medieval-style attack in which the ex-president's supporters riding camels and horses attacked anti-government demonstrators, a pivotal moment in the country's 2011 uprising.
The decision by Judge Hamed Abdullah of the Court of Cassation raised calls for new investigations into the so-called "Battle of the Camel" on Feb. 2, 2011 in Cairo's Tahrir Square, The attack set off clashes that lasted into the next day and left nearly a dozen dead.
The text of the judge's decision was not immediately available. In the original October verdict, judges argued that witnesses were unreliable and there was weak evidence against the defendants, who included some of the biggest names in the Mubarak regime. Nearly all the officials accused of complicity in the killing of more than 800 protesters during the uprising have been acquitted, angering the families of the victims and other Egyptians who demanded that officials be held accountable for the brutal crackdown.
Lawyers said new evidence has emerged since the original trial. This makes the acquittals a key test for Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, who has repeatedly vowed to seek retribution for those killed during the revolution. Morsi created a special prosecution office to re-investigate cases and promised new trials if new evidence emerged.
The Battle of the Camel was a memorable moment of the 18-day uprising. The assault played out worldwide on TV screens and proved to be a turning point in the wave of protests that led to Mubarak's downfall.
It followed Mubarak's emotional speech, saying he would eventually step down. That speech won him sympathy and thinned the crowds of protesters holding a sit-in at Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising.
A rival demonstration staged by Mubarak supporters turned into the attack on the anti-Mubarak protesters. Amid the melee, a number of men on horses and camels rode into the square, trying to beat and trample the protesters. This sparked an all-out battle that lasted two days, with anti-government protesters flooding into the square to defend it. The two sides pelted each other with stones, bricks and firebombs. In the end, the Mubarak supporters were driven away.
The attack and the images of young protesters fighting back reversed sympathies and galvanized the uprising. Many Egyptians who were undecided about the uprising saw the attack as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to crush the revolt. Many accused Mubarak officials and pro-regime businessmen of paying thugs to carry out the assault.
The acquittals pose a dilemma for Morsi.
He faces calls from relatives of the victims and others to reform the judiciary, which his supporters charge is filled with Mubarak sympathizers. He removed the country's top prosecutor and appointed another. The opposition criticized that decision, saying Morsi was interfering in judicial affairs. It was later overturned by a court order, but his newly appointed chief prosecutor is still on the job.
Morsi commissioned a fact-finding commission and it delivered its report late last year raising expectations that new investigations would follow, but so far, no new probes have been announced. Lawyer Ahmed Ragheb, who was part of the fact-finding commission, said Wednesday's verdict gives Morsi's government a chance to act on its promise to mete out justice based on the new report's findings.
"This is a new test for the judiciary, not just the prosecution, and a new test for Morsi," said Ragheb. "This case shows that the defect is in the system as a whole — the police, prosecution and judiciary."
Calls to the chief prosecutor's office were not returned.
Some rights groups raised concern that in Egypt's highly polarized, post-Mubarak politics, the special prosecution process could be used to go after critics. These fears were particularly fueled as the judiciary became a battleground between Morsi, his supporters and their opponents.
On Wednesday, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said Egypt was facing a "critical moment" with mounting concerns over what she described as apparent efforts to limit the authority of the judiciary, a draft law that would impose "draconian restrictions" on civil groups and legal action targeting protesters, journalists and activists.
"People, including members of the security forces, responsible for very serious human rights abuses, such as the killing, torture, rape and other forms of sexual attacks on protesters, and ill-treatment of detainees, have in many cases not been properly investigated by the general prosecutors, let alone brought to justice," she said.
Anti-Morsi critics, including vocal activists and a prominent TV satirist, have been questioned and some were referred to trial for speaking out against some of his policies.
On Wednesday, a state security prosecutor referred to trial the editor in chief of the daily Al-Watan newspaper, and the paper's political editor. They are accused of allegedly publishing false information collected after a security raid on a suspected terrorist cell. The information included a hit list of prominent politicians, military, TV and religious personalities, according to the paper.
The paper said on its website that the editors, Magdy el-Gallad and Ahmed el-Khatib, refused to appear for questioning in line with a decision by an Egyptian journalists' union not to abide by orders issued by Morsi's new chief prosecutor until a legal challenge about his position is settled.
The paper has dismissed the charges, which can carry fines and up to three years in prison.