Egypt puts pressure on judges to toe the line

Mubarak government cracks down on jurists advocating judicial and election reforms
Facing his colleagues inside the small hearing room at the High Court building in downtown Cairo, Hesham Bestawissi could hear the faint chants of several hundred protesters outside as they squared off against more than 10,000 black-clad riot police officers.

A high-ranking appeals court judge, Bestawissi had been in this room many times, presiding over the trials of fellow jurists accused of corruption and judicial misconduct. But this time, the 55-year-old jurist was the defendant, charged with defaming Egypt’s judiciary by publicizing alleged vote-rigging during tumultuous elections last year.

This trial, and a wider crackdown on reformist judges, is the latest and perhaps most far-reaching flash point in the Egyptian government’s effort to consolidate control after a year of political turmoil.

“It was like war,’’ Bestawissi said of the scene outside the High Court last week, where police shut down several blocks of downtown Cairo, beating and arresting several demonstrators. “It’s the first time a judge has been tried for expressing his opinion. It’s the first time a judge of my stature has faced charges.’’

Just a year ago, Egypt — under pressure from within and without — was showing signs of new openness. Competitive presidential and parliamentary elections were promised, and massive street demonstrations called for a new political order. Egypt’s judges threatened to withhold certification of the elections unless there were new guarantees of fairness.

When the electoral dust cleared, President Hosni Mubarak had been re-elected in a walk, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood — whose candidates ran as independents — took a surprising 20 percent of the seats in parliament, and a new election law all but guaranteed Mubarak’s National Democratic Party would hold the presidency for the foreseeable future.

It was time for payback.

Presidential candidate Ayman Nour, who placed a distant second to Mubarak with 7 percent of the vote, was convicted of forgery and sent to prison. He faces new charges, including idolatry, and his wife has been charged with assaulting a police officer. The Muslim Brotherhood has seen scores of its members arrested this year.

Now the vise is closing on the resisters in robes. Bestawissi and another judge, Mahmoud Mekki, will be removed from the bench if they are convicted of administrative charges that include insulting the judiciary, working in politics and talking to the media.

There are 8,000 judges in Egypt, all of them former prosecutors. The judiciary’s budget is set by the Ministry of Justice. The Supreme Judiciary Council, which oversees the courts, is controlled by the government. The judges have been pushing since 1991 for a new law that would make them an independent branch of government, rather than under the thumb of the executive branch.

Last year, the Judges Club released reports alleging fraud during a referendum on Egypt’s new election law and during the September presidential elections. A third report detailing alleged misconduct during the December 2005 parliamentary elections is in the works.

“Everyone who raised their heads during the pro-reform period has now come under attack by the government,’’ said Joshua Stacher, a Cairo-based doctoral student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who is writing his thesis on Egyptian politics. “The judges are the most important example.’’

Egypt’s parliament voted Sunday to extend the state of emergency that has been in place since Mubarak, now 78, first took power in 1981. During last year’s campaign, he had promised to lift the state of emergency, which gives police and intelligence services broad arrest powers. Last month, the government announced it would postpone local elections for two years.

A stalwart ally of the United States, Mubarak has portrayed the courthouse battle as an in-house dispute among judges.

“I will not intervene between judges out of respect for the judiciary’s independence and esteem for its judges,’’ he said in a recent interview with the Arabic language al-Gomhuriya newspaper.

“It’s a lie, and he knows it,’’ Bestawissi says, smoking a cigarette in the sitting room of his upper-middle-class apartment in the Nasr City section of Cairo.

Bestawissi’s living room, with its faux-French furniture and shelves full of law books, is clearly the domain of a member of Egypt’s elite. The son of a lawyer, Bestawissi says he became a judge “to defend human rights, to help people. We are making the rules to understand the law, and the other (lower) courts must follow those rules. I love it.’’

Yet he has probably tried his last case. There is only one logical outcome to his trial, Bestawissi said without evident rancor: removal from the bench. He said that he may try to practice law, but he predicted that official harassment would eventually lead to his disbarment and possible arrest.

“Look at Ayman Nour,’’ he said.

His three sons, two of them law students, support his kamikaze stand. But the wider legal community may be less enthusiastic.

Of the 8,000 judges, an estimated 1,000, at most, are actively working for an independent judiciary, Stacher said. Of those, 30 are considered leaders, and 10 of them already face various government-imposed sanctions.

“They can pick these people off one at a time,’’ Stacher said. “The judges are in for some darker times. The long-term ramifications will be devastating for judicial autonomy.’’

In the end, Bestawissi said, judges are becoming political figures for their very refusal to take part in ruling party politics.

“Judges are not the opposition,’’ said Hala Mustafa, a dissident member of the National Democratic Party’s policy committee. The government’s resort to “aggressive measures could give the signal that the regime is finished compromising.’’

Bestawissi’s trial resumes Friday. Asked if it was too late to save his career, Bestawissi replied, “It’s never too late. All I have to do is say that we have a good government, good elections, a good judiciary. That’s all.’’

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