Egypt judges lock horns with regime

 The confrontation stepped up a notch on Thursday between the Egyptian government and reformist judges, who openly called for a change of regime and saw their supporters arrested and beaten by police.

After the hearing of two judges who had accused the judiciary of helping to rig elections was adjourned to May 11, their syndicate held an assembly during which they vowed to keep up the pressure on President Hosni Mubarak.

In a statement released after their meeting, the judges called for “democracy through free elections which allow a real change of regime.”

They also called for “the abolition of all exception laws, including the state of emergency, and for the freedom to form political parties without any restrictions.”

The statement marked a toughened tone in the discourse of the judges, who have become a symbol of the drive for reform in Egypt and had already been waging an aggressive campaign to demand more independence from the executive.

Thousands of police had been deployed across Cairo Thursday ahead of the hearing by a disciplinary board against Mahmud Mekki and Hisham Al Bastawissi, two of the most outspoken reformists in the judges’ syndicate.

A group of a few hundred activists camped outside the court to support the two judges were assaulted by police. Some of them were beaten with sticks and an undetermined number arrested.

“Judges are our voice against dictatorship,” chanted the protestors. “Police are oppressing us” and “With God’s help, the judges do not fear anybody,” went some of the slogans.

Activists were snatched off the street by police even before they reached the block which houses a number of courts and the syndicates for the country’s journalists, judges and lawyers, witnesses told AFP.

After the judges’ assembly, police tried to detain Georges Ishak, the spokesman for the pro-reform Kefaya movement, which has been a staunch supporter of the judges.

An AFP reporter saw three judges physically confront the riot police and yank back Ishak to the safety of the judges’ syndicate.

Similar clashes took place Monday, during which one judge was wounded and at least 14 Kefaya members were detained as they demonstrated in solidarity with the two judges.

Among the protestors was Kamal Khalil, one of the most prominent activists from the movement that staged an unprecedented wave of street demonstrations in 2005 calling for an end to Mubarak’s 25-year rule.

Only two years ago, street protests in Cairo were almost unimaginable, but Mubarak had loosened his iron grip on the state amid pressure from Washington to allow greater political freedom in Egypt.

Judges, intellectuals, rights groups and protestors argued Thursday that the regime was reverting to its strong-arm tactics to muzzle dissident voices.

“If the demands of the judges were justified and didn’t reflect those of the nation, they wouldn’t have worried the government so much and such a police blockade would not have been imposed around the judges’ meeting, as if they were terrorists,” Alexandria judge Ashraf Al Barudi told AFP.

The summons against Mekki and Bastawissi saw unprecedented mobilisation in favour of the judges, who are in charge of supervising the polling process in elections.

“This display of force is a return to the policies of oppression and a police state,” said political commentator Mohammed Sayed Said, who was among a group of intellectuals supporting the judges, which also included filmmaker Yusef Chahine.

“But all this will not succeed in reimposing a culture of fear. The people have already defeated it and they are ready to pay with their blood for democratic change,” he told AFP.

The opposition Muslim Brotherhood, which has also been calling for an end to the decades-old state of emergency, said 21 of its members were detained at Alexandria station as they prepared to go to Cairo to support the judges.

US-based Human Rights Watch on Wednesday urged the Egyptian regime to investigate the fraud that marred the poll and stop intimidating the judges who reported it.