Egypt court upholds acquittals in 2011 battle

May 08, 2013, 10:27 AM EDT

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's highest appeals court upheld on Wednesday the acquittal of 24 Hosni Mubarak loyalists tried on charges of having organized a medieval-style attack by camel- and horse-riding supporters of the ousted president on a crowd of demonstrators, a pivotal moment in the country's 2011 uprising.

The decision by Judge Hamed Abdullah of the Court of Cassation against the prosecution's appeal raises calls for new investigations into the Feb. 2, 2011 "Battle of the Camel" in Tahrir Square, which set off clashes that lasted into the next day and left nearly a dozen dead.

The text of his decision was not immediately available. In the original October verdict, the judges argued witnesses were unreliable and evidence against the defendants, some of the biggest names in the Mubarak regime, was weak.

It was a common explanation offered by judges trying officials accused of complicity in the killing of over 800 protesters during the uprising. Almost all have been acquitted, angering the families of the victims and other Egyptians who demanded that officials be held accountable for the brutal crackdown.

Lawyers say however that new evidence has emerged since the original trial. This makes the acquittal a key test for Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi, who has repeatedly vowed to seek retribution for those killed during the revolution. Morsi has created a special prosecution office to re-investigate and retry officials acquitted of killing demonstrators.

The Battle of the Camel was a particularly memorable moment during the 18-day uprising. The assault played out on TV screens and proved to be a turning point in the wave of protests that led to Mubarak's downfall.

It followed an emotional speech by Mubarak saying he would eventually step down, winning him sympathy and draining the numbers of protesters in a sit-in still in its first week in Cairo's Tahrir Square, the heart of the uprising.

A rival protest in support of Mubarak then turned into an attack on the protesters, and amid the melee a number of men on horses and camels swept in, trying to beat and trample protesters. This sparked into an all-out battle that lasted two days, with more protesters flooding into the square to defend it in clashes that saw the two sides pelting 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 sitting on the fence saw it as a desperate last ditch attempt to crush the revolt, and many accused Mubarak officials and pro-regime businessmen of paying thugs to carry out the attack.

The defendants in the trial that began after Mubarak's stepping down included the former parliamentary speaker and the head of the now-dissolved ruling party, along with government ministers and businessmen.

But lawyers say that in this trial, as in other trials of officials and the security forces charged with killing protesters, the police did a shoddy job of collecting evidence. They blame the conditions under which police worked — they were also the subject of anger during the uprising — as well as sympathy for their colleagues and a legal code that is not designed to try state officials.

The acquittals pose Morsi a dilemma. He faces calls from relatives of the victims and others to purge the judiciary, and has promised new trials based on new investigations and evidence. But his decision to remove the country's top prosecutor backfired. That, coupled with a decision to protect his decisions briefly from judicial oversight, caused the opposition and many judges to accuse him of interfering with judicial independence.

Morsi commissioned a fact-finding mission and it delivered its report late last year raising expectations that new investigations would follow. But little has come of it, and leaks of the report have been downplayed by prosecutors. This has produced more allegations against Morsi: that he was reluctant to aggravate already strained relations with former regime officials.

Morsi's office said he has not seen the report, precisely to avoid politicizing it, and has asked prosecutors to look into the findings.

Lawyer Ahmed Ragheb, part of the fact-finding mission, said the Court of Cassation's Battle of the Camel verdict is the time for Morsi to act on his promise to refer such cases to a special prosecutor once the ordinary courts have run their course.

"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 aide were not returned.