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Avoiding ‘victor’s justice’ in Egypt

Posted: August 8, 2011 - 8:17pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times on Thursday:

Hosni Mubarak, the longtime president of Egypt and personification of corruption in that country, went on trial Wednesday in a televised proceeding that promises rich drama. What it may not promise is a fair trial, a goal of little interest to some Egyptians but vital to Egypt’s claim to be a civilized state. The military authorities who now rule Egypt pending formation of a civilian government should make every effort to ensure that Mubarak is fairly tried on charges of corruption and of killing civilians during the insurrection that ousted him.

The corruption charges allege mind-boggling self-dealing, suggesting that the former president hid a fortune of at least $470 million in international bank accounts. But there are questions about whether evidence exists to convict him. Prosecutors must be scrupulous about making their case, and if the evidence is lacking, the court should so rule.

Much more serious is the charge of murdering some 800 protesters. It is perfectly appropriate, desirable in fact, that Mubarak be tried for that offense. Like other regimes threatened by the Arab Spring — notably that of Moammar Gadhafi — Mubarak’s government was willing to shed innocent blood in the cause of self-preservation. That is a crime as well as a political act, but the prosecution should be required to prove that Mubarak was personally aware of his armed forces’ attacks on civilians.

It’s in Egypt’s interest that a verdict in Mubarak’s trial, particularly if it is accompanied by a death sentence, not look like a case of “victor’s justice,” a description that applies to the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein and those of other fallen despots. Such reservations troubled even some observers of the Nuremberg Trials at the conclusion of World War II.

Egypt has a venerable legal system derived in part from European systems of justice. It is supposed to be free of politics, but prosecutors announced the charges before a major demonstration, seemingly playing to the crowd. Some Egyptians fear that the court, out of habitual deference to the former leader, will favor Mubarak in its rulings. That would be objectionable, but so would be actions designed to curry favor with anti-Mubarak Egyptians.

A central principle of the state envisioned by many of those who rose up against Mubarak is due process of law. That should apply even in the case of a hated dictator. The only acceptable show trial is one that shows Egypt’s legal system to be immune to politics.

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