An Egyptian court acquitted three Hosni Mubarak-era ministers of corruption charges on Tuesday while finding a fourth guilty in absentia — a decision likely to stoke anger among protesters calling for more accountability for ousted regime officials.
The verdicts came a day after 10 policemen charged with killing protesters were ordered released on bail, prompting hundreds of Egyptians to attack a courtroom in Cairo.
Tensions are running high in Egypt over the ruling military council's failure to punish those blamed for killing protesters during the 18-day uprising that forced Mubarak to step down on Feb. 11 as well as ex-officials accused of participating in corruption and cronyism that was widespread during the former president's nearly three-decade rule.
Many Egyptians feel the courts have not done enough to punish former regime officials, complaining that anti-graft cases have gone too fast to court without proper investigation, leaving them vulnerable to acquittals, while cases pertaining to human rights and the killings of protesters dragged.
Nearly five months later, only one policeman has been convicted in the deaths of at least 846 people killed in the government crackdown on protesters. He was tried in absentia.
Protesters seeking to step up pressure on authorities to speed up accountability efforts plan a major protest on Friday to call for fair trials and 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.
In an apparent attempt to defuse the anger, Egypt's Prosecutor-General Mahmoud Abdel-Meguid appealed the acquittals shortly after they were issued, Egypt's state TV said. He had taken a similar decision following Monday's decision to release the police.
Relatives of slain protesters cut traffic for at least six hours Monday on the highway from Cairo to the city of Suez, leaving hundreds of cars lined up. The court case involved 17 protesters killed in Suez.
On Tuesday, family members and associates of the acquitted Mubarak-era officials cheered after Judge Mohammed Fathi Sadek of the Cairo Criminal Court read the verdicts. The accused faced prison sentences of up to 15 years.
Sadek found not guilty Ahmed Maghrabi, Yousef Boutros-Ghali and Anas el-Fiqqi, former ministers of housing, finance and information, respectively.
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 boost Mubarak's image. The judge acquitted the two.
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 illegally acquire state land and sentenced to five years and a fine.
On Tuesday, the court found former Trade Minister Rachid Mohammed Rachid and two businessmen guilty of squandering public funds and profiteering. Rachid and one of the businessmen were sentenced in absentia to five years in prison, ordered to each 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.
"This is encouraging to those awaiting trial and reassures everybody," he said.
In a fourth verdict, the judge ordered an expert committee to review a number of TV programs and shows produced by the former head of the state TV and Radio Union Osama el-Sheik.
El-Sheik is charged with squandering $1.7 million of public funds producing these programs without authorization. The review is expected to be heard in the next session scheduled for Sept.8.
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 their 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.