Egypt judge vows to keep fighting government corruption

Justice Ahmed Mekki, one of the chief whistleblowers of the alleged widespread and well-reported vote-rigging that marred, respectively, Egypt’s September and November 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections, vowed Wednesday to continue his fight against the Egyptian ministry of the interior.

In an interview with the Middle East Times, Mekki said: “The ministry is orchestrating a campaign of intimidation against outspoken judges, aimed at undermining the limited independence of the Egyptian judiciary.”

His defiance came in spite of receiving an official warning from a judicial disciplinary council last month after he and fellow judge Hisham Bastawisi, also a member of the Judges’ Club, the official body that represents Egyptian justices, were accused of “insulting the reputation of the Egyptian judiciary.”

The unrepentant Mekki stressed that, “it is essential that judges continue to fight the corruption that accompanies elections in Egypt, as well as to fight legislation which persecutes political opponents of the government.

“If the Egyptian judiciary is to protect the very little that remains of our independence, and to fight for a future free and democratic Egypt, the judiciary needs to be separated from the executive power as represented by the ministry of the interior,” he said.

In the ongoing bid to gag and make an example of judges who publicly criticize the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the lack of reform, justice minister Mahmoud Abu Leil, backed by prosecutor general Maher Abdel Wahed ordered the two particularly outspoken and pro-reform judges, who are the cassation court’s deputies of the chief justice, to be brought before the disciplinary council.

The impartiality of the trial, headed by judge Fathi Khalifa, chairman of the state-appointed Supreme Judiciary Council was brought into question when Khalifa, who is unabashedly pro-government, was put in charge of the council as he attacked reformist judges, describing them as a minority who harmed the image of the judiciary.

The final ruling provoked widespread concern and public protests and demonstrations by opposition political parties, pro-reform groups, and trade unionists in support of the two judges. These protests were violently dispersed by the riot police and more than 500 demonstrators, mostly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, were arrested.

An outraged Cairo Judges’ Club held a sit-in protest at its premises and threatened that if President Hosni Mubarak didn’t intervene there “would be dire consequences.”

A further storm erupted in parliament when nearly one-fifth of parliamentarians, the majority of them Muslim Brotherhood members, demanded that the speaker of the People’s Assembly, Fathi Sorour, question Abu Leil, but to no avail.

Prior to the final ruling, human rights organization Amnesty International also voiced its concern stating that it: “regrets that Mahmoud Mekki and Hisham Bastawisi are being disciplined for fulfilling their professional duties with integrity and reporting on electoral fraud, as well as for exercising their fundamental right to freedom of expression. In addition, some of the members of the disciplinary board have publicly condemned statements made by the two judges, adding to concerns that they may not receive an impartial hearing.”

The relationship between the ministry and the club started souring back in late 2005 after the government cut funds to the club following the allegations of fraud and vote-rigging after the elections. Bastawisi, Mekki, and six other pro-reform judges drew up a blacklist of individuals, including prominent judges, who, they claimed were involved in the fraud, and asked the prosecutor general to investigate. The list was published extensively in the media.

Instead, the prosecutor general ordered that the six judges be investigated. However, investigations into the six, regarding that particular episode, are yet to get underway, leading other prominent judges to doubt the legitimacy of the decision to investigate them.

“If the judiciary was independent, the minister would not be able to interfere and discipline judges who do not follow orders,” judge Ahmed Saber, a board member of the Cairo Judges Club,” told the Al Ahram Weekly.

Mekki told the Middle East Times that: “in a bid to force us to tow the party line, the government withdrew all financial support to the Judges’ Club, and withdrew all our administrative and clerical staff provided by the ministry of the interior, and whose support is essential if we are to carry out our work and duties efficiently.”

“Furthermore, they have recently passed several new laws without consulting us at all, and in matters which pertain to the judiciary. One of the problems with the current judiciary laws is that judicial authority is curbed by the opinion of the majority of judges, many of whose sympathies lie with the government,” he added.

Judicial critics face disciplinary councils, losing their jobs, public censure, and even possible jail sentences as the Mubarak administration tries to rein in critics from all walks of Egyptian life. This is specifically what reformists like Bastawisi and Mekki are working to change through establishing a new law aimed at achieving the total independence of the judiciary.

But Mohammed Khalil Kwaitah, a People’s Assembly member affiliated with the NDP denied this interference occurred and told the Daily Star that the “Egyptian constitution explicitly states that the legislative, executive, and judiciary authorities should not interfere with each other.”

Kwaitah further accused the judges of appointing themselves as part-time politicians, which, he claimed, was in “complete contradiction of their roles.”

However, according to Mekki, given that judges are part of the community, they are perfectly entitled to express their opinion on matters that concern them.

In an ominous sign for future development, the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary issued a statement, adding that other prominent and outspoken judges could expect to meet similar fates if they continued to rock the boat.

Nonetheless, Mekki remained undeterred by his ordeal, vowing to continue the fight.

“I don’t care if I lose my job, so long as I don’t lose my self-esteem and the people’s respect for me,” he concluded.