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Egypt's Longtime Dictator Acquitted Over 2011 Protester Deaths

Ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak waves to his supporters last year from his hospital room in Cairo, Egypt.
Amr Nabil
Ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak waves to his supporters last year from his hospital room in Cairo, Egypt.

It was once called the "trial of the century" in Egyptian media.

And now, the final ruling has come down from Egypt's top appeals court: Longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak has been acquitted of ordering police to kill anti-government protesters during the uprising that ousted him in 2011.

This marks the end of a six-year court battle, during which the political landscape in Egypt has shifted dramatically. Many of the protesters who led the 2011 uprising sit in prison, while many figures associated with the Mubarak regime have re-entered political life.

Mubarak, 88 and in poor health, was initially sentenced to life in prison in 2012 for his role in the deaths of hundreds of protesters. "An appeals court overturned that ruling and the court today says those charges are now dismissed," NPR's Jane Arraf reports from Cairo. "The court also ruled that relatives of the victims can't file civil charges in the case."

The former strongman smiled and waved at supporters during the court session, as The Associated Press reported. After his charges were read, he stated, "It did not happen," according to the wire service.

The final ruling is a massive blow to the families of those killed during the uprising, who have been demanding justice. "This ruling is not fair and not just. The judiciary is politicised," Osman al-Hefnawy, a lawyer for the families, told Reuters.

Even at the beginning, the case against Mubarak was difficult to make, and human rights advocates feared that it was poorly constructed, as NPR has reported. A crucial CD of police communications was destroyed. Connecting the killings to Mubarak himself proved difficult. And prosecutors had to rely on evidence from the Interior Ministry, even though it was seen as still loyal to the Mubarak regime.

Top human rights lawyer Negad Borai told The Associated Press that "there was not enough evidence for Mubarak to have been found guilty of the specific charges he faced, but said he still blamed Mubarak's long autocratic rule for Egypt's woes." As he put it: "Mubarak is now technically an innocent, but he killed the future of a country, both directly and indirectly. The question now is how we move forward as a nation."

Egyptians were initially enthralled by the images on TV of their former dictator wheeled into the courtroom on a stretcher. For many, he symbolized repression and crony capitalism. But the trial had largely fallen out of public attention after the years of political turmoil that followed Mubarak's ouster.

He was "freed two years ago after serving a three-year sentence for misusing public funds but he has remained at the military hospital where he was treated," as Jane reports. "Local media quoted his lawyers as saying with this case over, he will now go home."

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi has presided over a brutal crackdown against government critics since the 2013 ouster of democratically elected Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Many activists see the current moment as even more repressive than under Mubarak.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.