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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Mubarak Convicted in Egypt: A Precedent?

On June 2, 2012, an Egyptian court sentenced former President Hosni Mubarak to life in prison for being an accomplice in the killing of unarmed demonstrators during the protests in the “Arab Spring.” The significance of this verdict in terms of human rights from an international standpoint lies in the fact that the accountability on a ruler was accomplished by his own citizens—meaning the country’s own court. Lest the International Criminal Court be reckoned as coming up short in terms of being able to arrest and convict sitting or former rulers of states, the verdict from Egypt says, in effect, there is an alternative. Governments can fortify the independence of their respective judiciaries such that public officials can be held accountable domestically. Under this scenario, the ICC would be of value to the world particularly if it could be fortified to step in where states do not have court systems strong enough to arrest and try a current or former ruler. In other words, we ought not forget the alternative of national courts when we bemoan the weaknesses of the ICC.

All this is not to say that national judiciaries should necessarily be relied on—at least until they are strengthened in their capacity as a check on military, legislative, and executive officials and even heads of state. In the Egyptian verdict, for example, although Mubarak and his interior minister received life sentences, many officials more directly responsible for the police who killed the demonstrators were acquitted, as was Mubarak on corruption charges. Furthermore, many lawyers said his conviction could be reversed on appeal. Accordingly, a prosecutor in the case announced an appeal would be made with a particular interest in convicting Mubarak’s sons of corruption and several police commanders of murder. The want of convictions against them triggered popular protests across Egypt after the verdict. Those protests signify a popular will that even high officials be held accountable within the country rather than just at the ICC. A judiciary should not depend on grass roots sentiment, however, so more evidently is needed before Egypt (and many other similar countries, no doubt) can be relied on to police their own officials on human rights abuses.

                While hearing the life-sentence verdict against him, Mubarak shows no remorse.    Reuters TV

At the time of Mubarak’s conviction (and that of Charles Taylor by a Sierra Leon court at the Hague the week before), the world could be excused for having the false hope that dictators would thereafter finally be held accountable for violating the human rights of others. The hope in such a default-made-real can be funneled into a renewed effort to strength the ICC and the independence of governments’ own judiciaries. In other words, a better world wherein even the most powerful rulers and their subordinates are held accountable even for “giving the order” could finally be visualized, and out of this mere glimmer of sight could come the final push toward that better world.


David Kirkpatrick, “New Turmoil in Egypt Greets Mixed Verdict for Mubarak,” The New York Times, June 2, 2012. 

Alana Horowitz, “Mubarak Verdict To Be Appealed By Top Prosecutor,” The Huffington Post, June 3, 2012.