CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court acquitted three Hosni-Mubarak-era Cabinet ministers of corruption Tuesday, the first verdicts in favor of ousted regime figures since the president was forced from power in February.
The verdicts followed days of rioting and protests by Egyptians furious over the procedures and the slow pace of justice for police who killed more than 800 demonstrators during the 18-day uprising and for ex-regime officials who ordered the violent crackdown.
Although a fourth Cabinet minister was convicted in absentia, critics said the verdicts underscored the reluctance of the ruling military council to mete out justice to former regime officials for corruption and human rights abuses during Mubarak's nearly three decades in power.
Many lawyers defended the juidiciary, saying Tuesday's decision shows that it is professional and not driven by popular rage. Instead, they blamed the government. They said the speedy referral of numerous cases to trial, with little time for investigation, makes it hard to obtain convictions.
But both sides agree that public anger would only grow as a result of the verdicts. There is concern about the spread of vigilante justice, which could further complicate the already tense transition period. The verdicts came a day after hundreds of protesters stormed a Cairo courtroom over a decision to release on bail seven policemen charged with killing 17 protesters during the uprising.
"This acquittal doesn't bode well for our case," said Osama Abou el-Matti, 50, of Alexandria, whose brother was shot and killed during the uprising. "How will I get retribution? If not through the courts, I will take it with my own hands."
In an apparent attempt to defuse the anger, Egypt's Prosecutor-General Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid appealed the acquittals Tuesday as well as Monday's decision to release the police, Egypt's state TV said.
There are already calls for large protests this week demanding fair trials and retribution, as well as measures to purge former regime officials from political and economic life.
Mubarak and his two sons also face charges of killing protesters and amassing illegal wealth. Their trial is scheduled to begin Aug. 3.
Protesters complain that court officials have generally been lax with police officers accused of shootings during the uprising, allowing many to stay on the job while facing murder charges or setting them free on bail. They say this leaves victims' families subject to intimidation.
Only one policeman has been convicted in more than a dozen court cases over the deaths of at least 846 people killed in the government crackdown on protesters. He was tried in absentia.
By contrast, human rights activists complain that minor offenders and protesters are referred to military tribunals — known for quick and harsh sentences.
On Tuesday, family members and associates of the Mubarak-era officials cheered after Judge Mohammed Fathi Sadek of the Cairo Criminal Court read the verdicts.
The three-judge panel acquitted Ahmed Maghrabi, Yousef Boutros-Ghali and Anas el-Fiqqi, former ministers of housing, finance and information, respectively. They each had faced prison sentences of up to 15 years.
Maghrabi was tried for corruption over the sale of state-owned land to a real estate company, Palm Hills, in which he is still a partner. Three others involved in the deal, the head of a state-sponsored publishing house and two businessmen, were also found not guilty.
Boutros-Ghali and el-Fiqqi were tried for corruption for channeling $6 million to media campaigns to help Mubarak's party in elections and to boost Mubarak's image.
Maghrabi and el-Fiqqi will remain in jail because they are facing other charges. The whereabouts of Boutros-Ghali, a nephew of former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, are unknown. He was sentenced in absentia in June to 30 years in prison on separate charges of abusing his authority and squandering public funds.
Maghrabi also was convicted in June of intentionally damaging public finances by allowing a businessman to acquire state land illegally. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Former Trade Minister Rachid Mohammed Rachid and two businessmen were convicted Tuesday of squandering public funds and profiteering. Rachid and one of the businessmen were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison, each ordered to return $335,000 to the state and pay fines of the same amount.
The third got a one-year suspended sentence and must return $2 million to the state, and pay a fine of the same amount.
His lawyer, Maged Mohammed Abdel-Rahman, said his client would appeal the sentence, but called the verdicts proof that Egypt can hold fair trials despite calls for revolutionary justice.
"This is encouraging to those awaiting trial and reassures everybody," he said.
Nasser Amin, a transitional justice lawyer and activist, said the verdicts were expected given the large volume of reports and complaints against former regime officials that the prosecution is looking into, side by side with the courts' regular schedule. This would inevitably lead to weak cases that can easily be dismissed.
"The danger is there may be similar decisions in the cases of killing of protesters," he said.
He called for exceptional measures, such as having specialized criminal courts deal with post-revolution trials alone.
"The lack of clarity in matters of accountability after the revolution and insisting on regular measures during the transitional period may be a proof that the Egyptian state is still strong and is carrying out its duties, but it is also going to create problems," he said.
In addition to discontent over serving justice to Mubarak and stalwarts of his regime, the country is plagued by a dramatic surge in crime and the political forces are divided by a debate on whether a new constitution should be drafted before or after parliamentary elections due later this year.